Portrait by Gao Yuan
Ai Weiwei’s art has long protested his government's oppression of its people. His tweets are no different. Ai was banned from Chinese Twitter (Sina Weibo) and his blog was shut down by Chinese forces. Never one to be silent, or apologetic, Ai’s latest work transforms his prolific social media bleeps into a beautiful rice paper artwork called An Archive.
Part of the current exhibition Go East: The Gene and Brian Sherman Contemporary Asian Art Collection, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW—which investigates the connection between art and protest through works that include artists from Japan, Tibet, Indonesia and the Philippines—Ai’s An Archive was a special commission that saw him collaborate with traditional Chinese makers to translate the conversation from pixels to paper; every bleep painstakingly designed onto its own page.
The work is entirely in Mandarin, but Ai's motive is universal and, not surprisingly, he has a few things to say on the topic. We spoke to him about An Archive, Go East and the art of social media.
Photo courtesy of the artist
The Creators Project: Do you consider your social media presence, your tweets and your blog posts, part of your art?
Ai Weiwei: I consider all of my expressions a part of my art. Sometimes it takes a traditional form or language and, at other times, it requires the creation of a new language. However, they are all the same. Art is to express yourself through a medium in order to successfully communicate with another.
Why did you decide to make An Archive?
Archiving is a very important act. We look in the mirror otherwise we forget who we are. Similarly, archiving is a way to look at traces of what has happened to and around us. It is a chance to re-examine our behavior in order to better understand ourselves.
Can you tell us a bit about the work?
An Archive relates to my writings on the Internet, focusing on my writings on Twitter between 2009 and 2013. Twitter is a very interesting medium. It is not one that records the past, but one that forms in the present condition, with real connections to the future. It is so intimate but, at the same time, so broadly connects us to others. Humans have never had this in our history. By changing the way we communicate, it changes our understanding of ourselves and others. That gives a new definition to our society, to democracy, civil rights, and humanity as well. Although they are just my writings on Twitter, they relate to certain events and the discussions between readers and myself. It is like water flowing in front of us. There is a need to record it like a novel or like a piece of history.
What issues were you mainly concerned with, and vocal about, during 2009 and 2013?
Sitting in front of my computer, while on Twitter, was like whitewater rafting. You never knew what you would encounter and what you would see next. You try to respond to the moment. My activities involved discussions and memories of the past, as well as predictions for the future. Twitter was an exercise for the mind and one where you are fully exposed to the public.
Has your focus changed now?
My focus is always on freedom of expression. It is an essential quality of a free and civilised society. So while my focus has not changed, the form it manifests in can change. Sometimes it requires a form fit for a fixed space with a fixed audience, such as a gallery or museum. Other times, it is about engaging a different audience, such as my recent exhibition on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. I am always interested in discovering new possibilities for reaching new audiences. In those cases, I have to meet the challenge by developing the right language and examining the best way to communicate.
Why did you choose the form of the traditional Chinese book for this artwork?
In the traditional Chinese book, the only things recorded were highly sophisticated literature or history. Printing was expensive and difficult so, as a result, the elite culture was what was recorded as part of this early civilization. Twitter is digital and has few barriers to publication. It’s a bit ironic to combine these two conditions together, to justify and subvert both.
Ai Weiwei, An Archive, 2015. Huali Wood, Xuan Paper. Edition of 2 + 1 AP. 100 x 100 x 114 cm. Courtesy of Collection: Gene & Brian Sherman, Sydney. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW
Is it true that you hadn’t used a computer before 2005?
I had not touched any computers before 2005. I never typed a single word on a keyboard. We didn’t really have a chance to practice. We also didn’t have the chance to express ourselves in the public realm, which is fully controlled by the state. When access to the Internet became more prevalent, this became the first opportunity to do so. The Internet thrilled me and I devoted myself to this miracle. My skills were premature so I began by learning how to type. The first sentence I typed was: “To express yourself needs a reason but expressing yourself is the reason.” It took me around two hours to do this. After that day, I would continue to spend several hours each day on the Internet. For the purpose of improving my ability to communicate with others, I heavily involved myself in this daily task.
Many people see social media as annoying or confusing or demanding, because it’s another thing to “do”. The way you interact with social media is very different. What does social media represent to you?
Social media is annoying and distracting in certain ways because we are familiar with an older lifestyle. The world today is very different. You can sit at your computer and, within minutes, you can see the best ideas and research on any topic. This is in conflict with our old habits, but there can be nothing better than this. Human beings are not created equal and we have never had that opportunity. Technology, especially with computers and the Internet, has gone further than anything else in leveling the field. This was unthinkable even a few decades ago.
Do you ever find social media exhausting?
I can’t get enough of it. When you use social media, time passes so quickly. It is like you are living in another reality where time travels at a different speed. I fully enjoy this experience. It is a very high state, like that in Zen Buddhist philosophy, to not have self-consciousness and to forget your own existence.
We are not able to read the text of An Archive, but its meaning is universal in many ways. That being said, do you have a favourite Tweet or blog post that you could tell us about here?
Aussies can see An Archive until July 26 at the Art Gallery of NSW. Head to their website to find out more about the show—made possible via a collaboration with Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation—and the other artworks, which include pieces from TCP-featured Zhang Huan and Yang Fudong.