For Document Fall/Winter 2020, the renegade artist contemplates human nature, cosmic forces, and hummus
I haven’t seen Ai Lao for a while. He’s 11 years old and going to school in England. When we’re together, he usually asks me, before he goes to bed at night, “Can I ask you a question, Dad?” “Sure,” I always answer. Then he asks, I answer, and when we’re done, he says, “Okay, I’m going to sleep.” This bedtime routine has become a custom. I never have all the answers; some of the questions are imponderables, to which he’ll find his own answers as he grows up—or so I tell myself.
Document Journal’s editors asked me to do a piece for them that combines text and illustration. During the pandemic, face-to-face talk has been replaced by online exchange, so I had the idea that I could call up Ai Lao in England and have him put questions to me, which I could answer over the internet, and right there we might have an interesting piece. So I called Ai Lao about it. From his expression on my smartphone screen, I could see that the idea did not grab him. He hesitated. Then he said he’d have to think it over. This response showed that he was becoming self-conscious about the question of his position in the family. It meant that he was growing up. And that meant that some of the sources of my happiness were disappearing. Growing up is more important, though, I told myself.
I asked him, “Can you help me with something?” “With what?” he replied.
“Can you ask me 20 questions?”
“Why would I want to?”
I started to explain about the magazine’s request, but before I could finish…
“I’m not interested.”
He said he did not want to be seen as the son of a famous person. He had made this point before.
“I only want to be a regular person,” he once said to me. “I don’t want my classmates and teachers to see me as a famous person’s child. I really don’t. I don’t want them to know that I am related to you.”
“But all you have to do is ask questions,” I said. “Questions have nothing to do with being famous or not. Everybody has questions, and I am your father, so asking me is perfectly normal.”
I was reflecting on the fact that I had never had a chance to ask questions of my own father. Posing questions to fathers was not encouraged in those days, and you could forget about getting truthful and complete answers. People lived under authoritarian terror; speech was unfree and limited, and asking questions was the most dangerous kind of free speech.
Human brains then, as now, had questions, as well as doubts about the answers, but questions and doubts, because they were of no use to dictatorial rule by one party, one “line,” and one mode of thought, were entirely out of bounds. I feel terrible that I missed my chance to ask my father questions and to hear the answers straight from his mouth. It wouldn’t even have mattered much what those answers were—just that I had asked and he had answered would have been priceless.
Finally Ai Lao said, “Okay, I’ll do it, then. I’ll go write down questions.” A half hour later, I received his 20. He told me about the order he was presenting them in. He had printed them out, used scissors to cut strips, with one question per strip, used his lottery machine to mix the strips, and then pasted the strips one by one on a sheet of paper. This would make the order random. Now it was my turn to write the answers.
Lao: What is the most correct choice you ever made?
Weiwei: Choices must be made all the time. I chose to ask you to ask questions, and you chose to do it. To make judgments among two or more alternatives in this exchange between you and me exemplifies formal behavior, and that behavior later will be spread into society through the media. When that happens, things that originally seemed private and utterly trivial take on special significance. They also can stimulate your imagination and your expectations, leading you, perhaps, to trick questions or to questions based on what you know about me, including the way I give flatly honest answers to questions during intellectual exchange.
For me, in order to call any choice ‘correct,’ it must be a response that is appropriate in a particular time and situation. I have done many interviews and regard this one, with you, as more important than the others. It benefits both of us. Life is in flux; choices depend on specific times and places. Irrational choices might sometimes be correct, and rational ones might not possess permanent correctness.
Lao: If you were to choose three phrases to describe yourself, what would they be, and why?
Weiwei: One would be ‘blind,’ another ‘curious,’ and the third, perhaps, ‘helpless.’ I say ‘blind’ because the elements in my birth and upbringing—family, social context, and survival conditions—had nothing to do with my own intentions. My life goals were set by some grand and unstable political narratives that determined basically who I was and what kind of environment I would live in.
My father was a poet. He was set adrift in the world before I was of an age to understand, and I followed him first to northeast China and then to Xinjiang in the northwest, areas that are farther from each other than any other two in China. Along the way, I grew up with him. He was a victim in a huge political struggle and was being punished as an ‘enemy of the Party.’ My own label was ‘child who could be educated.’
“Posing questions to fathers was encouraged in those days, and you could forget about getting truthful and complete answers. People lived under authoritarian terror; speech was unfree and limited, and asking questions was the most dangerous kind of free speech.”
Later, I went to the US and stayed for 12 years. I returned to China when my father fell ill, and he died shortly there- after. I then stayed in China and kept staying until somehow 22 years had passed. I did a number of things: I began collecting antiques and working on underground publications. My mother was not pleased to see me just staying at home, without any proper employment, so I felt obliged to build my own studio. All of this counts as passive behavior—‘blind.’ Now, you and I have left the land of our births and the language, relatives, friends, and customs that we were once so familiar with, and this, too, did not really come from our own wills. We have been made to face all this strangeness that we encounter.
So my ‘blindness’ can be understood as passivity, alienation, and inability to defend myself; it has followed me all through life. At every turn, I have asked myself, ‘Do I have to do this?’ The question has never had an answer. All things I have done have been attempts to cope with blindness and strangeness. I never know whether something has to be done.
Now for the word ‘curious.’ By nature, I have always wanted to figure things out, even everyday things like: What happens when I wake up? When I come to consciousness and see things, what is the connection between my subjective sense impressions and the things ‘out there’? We are so tiny, and the universe so immense! Our little cognitions fall into an ocean and can only struggle their way forward. That’s why curiosity is fun. It gives me a reason to go out and uncover, and then try to understand, the way things are. It helps me to see light in the darkness and to feel the wind.
Next is ‘helplessness.’ Life is a beautiful episode, and by calling it an ‘episode,’ I mean that it shows up at one point and leaves at another. This beginning-and-end is natural and necessary, rather like the battery in a cell phone that starts off, does its work, and then expires.
From the time we are born, our powers of knowing and reasoning, and our senses, memory, and judgment structure our language and the patterns we play by. Our ability to inquire, to doubt, and to reach the bottom of things provides our motivation to learn where our own selves have come from, where they want to go, and what their relationships are with the things in the world. Such striving binds us to our joys and tragedies and forms our culture, our science, our religion, and our politics.
Lao: What is the happiest story of your childhood?
Weiwei: My boyhood took place under some really tough conditions, and that meant that my happiest childhood stories were my fantasies. When real life cramps a person, the imagination blossoms. My imaginings of a world different from mine sprang from snippets of language that I heard from my father. They weren’t stories themselves, but they expanded my inner world; they let me know there could be another world—as if parallel to this one—where pain and despair did not rule, where something else was possible. This meant that my present plight was not inevitable, and neither was it absolute or immutable. It could have been the case that none of my suffering existed. So, you can see, fantasy was the rope that let me pull myself out of a deep dark hole and toward a world filled with light and life. The joy that fantasy brings is hard to express. But fantasy does not come without struggle.
Lao: What was the saddest experience in your childhood?
Weiwei: It was terrible to see how my father had no way to defend himself and no one to complain to when other people bullied and insulted him. Sadness saturated our lives. Our entire lives were occupied with forgetting that happiness exists, forgetting that social exchange is possible, forgetting about trust in others, and forgetting that the world actually might be a rational place and that other people might under- stand your situation. Because we had none of this—none. For me as a boy, the biggest wound was that I lost trust in other people. Happiness is built on self-confidence, which in turn depends on trust in others; happiness flows naturally from self-confidence. Without self-confidence, a person can never feel safe, and therefore never happy.
Lao: How would you describe your parents?
Weiwei: I see the story of myself as an extension of the story of them; my story began because of them. They brought me into the world, and I immediately became part of their experience of it. They placed on me no extravagant demands or expectations—not as a favor to me but just because they saw me as nothing more or less than part of themselves. Their love for me was the same thing as their love for themselves; there was no question of a borderline.
My parents were different types. My father was a poet. He saw himself as floating above the hurly-burly of the world and did not let daily life coerce his moods. This attitude led to punishment, but it also gave him ways to sidestep certain suffering. He could clean a dozen toilets every day, without break. The greatest injury that was dealt him was the ban on his writing. It meant he couldn’t express himself to others or hear their responses.
My mother was good-hearted, hardworking, and selfless. She was super clear on right and wrong. One day in winter, when I was very young, we were outside and happened across a mother and her little boy, who were begging. Mother asked me to take off my padded jacket and hand it to the little boy, who was visibly shivering in the cold wind. I watched him as he put it on. When we got home, Mother steamed some mantou buns and brought them back out to the mother and son. This little incident stayed with me. It taught me that human feelings could be shared and passed around. The passion my father put into anything he did, be it cleaning toilets or pruning a tree, had the same effect. These little matters helped me see who my parents were.
“We are so tiny, and the universe so immense! Our little cognitions fall into an ocean and can only struggle their way forward. That’s why curiosity is fun. It gives me a reason to go out and uncover, and then try to understand, the way things are.”
Lao: Is it right to seek revenge?
Weiwei: A tough question. On the whole, I’m against revenge. Revenge does not heal wounds or end controversies. The rule ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ means that when someone’s interests are harmed, the doer of the harm should suffer equally at the hands of the victim. When a life is taken, the taker of the life must surrender a life. The reason I am opposed to this logic is that revenge cannot restore value that has been lost and certainly cannot bring back a lost life. All it does is to double the loss, to complete a cycle that returns to the beginning, and to cause the world to lose more of the precious resource we call life. A life is a miracle, sacred and irreplaceable; only heaven should precipitate an end to one. A human mind cannot—whether for reasons of love, hate, religion, politics, skin color, or any ethnic or economic difference—pretend to that role. Moreover, every life has equal value; no life can take over for another and have things be the same. These principles are the foundation of what we call justice. Revenge cannot legitimately claim to rest on such a foundation. But revenge is not the same as resistance and or self-defense. When my own life or the lives of my family or community are threatened and I resist in an effort to prevent evil from happening, then, I believe, protection of the lives of myself or my group is just. If no alternative is available, these are the conditions that can justify counterattack. Not to allow self-defense is to allow life as a totality to be harmed, to allow values, moral judgment, and the world itself to disappear along with the disappearance of life. The only way finally to avoid revenge is to be persistent in resistance. Similarly, the understanding of life and of love must be continually emphasized if we are to stay out of the quagmire of hatred.
Lao: Why are people afraid of the powerful even if the powerful have no direct control over the ones who are afraid?
Weiwei: Power is a form of corruption. It has advantages because it can operate outside of controls that ordinary people have. The point is the same whether we’re talking about an individual’s power or about social or political power. Power comes from how people understand the use of force—be it cosmic force or a tiny judgment, be it used in national policy or in a squabble among citizens. Power comes from the knowledge that one commands, from the resources and information at one’s disposal, and from the ability to respond using tools and personal contacts. The powerful might display a ‘special’ wisdom, or an organized system, or financial capital or military might, and use it to ignore your existence—deny it or even suppress it—and seek to turn you into an insignificant datum. To vital life and human joy, at both the individual and the group levels, power is a fearsome threat.
Ordinary people are afraid of the powerful, whose capacity to do harm is, they know, greater than theirs, and this is the case even if the threat of the moment is pointed elsewhere. The threat might be pointed somewhere in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or elsewhere.
But human nature includes imagination and empathy, and in civilized society one imagines oneself in the shoes of others. Moral sympathy is the most important of humanity’s shared attributes. Ethics as understood in both religion and politics is based on appreciation of the pain of others. People or groups with excessive power must be contained, whether by cooperation among the powerless, by rule of law, or by revolution. Democracy, freedom of speech, and independent justice systems are methods by which the powerful can be caged.
“My boyhood took place under some really tough conditions, and that meant that my happiest childhood stories were my fantasies. When real life cramps a person the imagination blossoms.”
Lao: Who are the winners in 2020?
Weiwei: 2020 is a special case. The winner this year is COVID-19, a virus so tiny that it could hardly be tinier. It has no conscious life but can wreck the systems that it invades, can stoke the deepest fears of human beings, and can undermine the order of their civilization. It confounds the methods of politicians and ordinary people alike and—very naughty!—jumps beyond the bounds of human understanding and control. Past our emotions, too.
Lao: Why is it easier to destroy than to create?
Weiwei: This question does not have a simple answer. When a piece of porcelain slips from our hand and smashes on the floor, instantly it loses its beauty and its usefulness. Something truly has been destroyed. But to destroy other things, like the systemic patterns that are stuck in our minds—authoritarian politics, racial antipathy, religious prejudice, and the like—can be extremely difficult. Certain patterns in society, like the inordinate power of capital, resist destruction as well. But without destroying certain things, there can be no room for creation. So building and destruction are not opposed; they are two sides of the same thing. They appear together. If creation does not emerge, it is because destruction is not complete.
“But human nature includes imagination and empathy, and in civilized society one imagines oneself in the shoes of others. Moral sympathy is the most important of humanity’s shared attributes. Ethics as understood in both religion and politics is based on appreciation of the pain of others.”
Lao: Is it a crime for parents to implant ideas into their children?
Weiwei: Yes, you could say that it is. In a sense ‘education’ by nature is aggression: It attempts to implant ideas by authoritative say-so rather than by the natural process of learning for oneself. Parents and schools, under the banner of protecting the young, want to be as efficient as possible in how they press ideas into the brains of children, but those actions can be viewed as offenses when they obstruct the original patterns of life’s maturation, including its pleasures, its authentic learning, and its resistance to ideational pollution.
Lao: Why do countries need diplomats in order to do trade?
Weiwei: Ultimately, this goes back to the social division of labor in human history. Divisions of labor came about because of one group’s assessment of the comparative efficiency and profitability of other groups in doing certain labor. Male and female roles are an early example. Women raised children while relying on men to go out to hunt in order to feed the family. When humankind began its collective living, it wasn’t enough that some people hunted, some planted, and some cared for homes; there were also chiefs, spiritualists, soothsayers, and people who gave ideas to young people who lacked them. With this more complex division of labor, the notion of economic value arose. Some of that value had to go to support the ones who themselves were not producing value, and it was precisely those non-producers who were best positioned to enslave the ones who were producing.
In today’s world, we can take China and the West as an example. China has not yet developed a complete and independent economy. It has a huge labor market, and its people need jobs, but a society in which nearly everyone is working and almost no one is consuming is not good at generating wealth. So China relies crucially on trade with the West, and in this sense it binds its own hands and feet. But the West, avaricious for its own interests, has also bound its hands and feet in the trade. Market exchanges are necessary if wealth is to result, and on both sides of the ocean the exchanges are overseen by the people who do not themselves work. The gap between rich and poor is the main thing that keeps both societies going, and that cements China and the West in partnership. The two sides might not care for each other. They might even find each other disgusting, but their exploitation of each other has served them well. China’s bosses could see that their people could do the dirty or the boring work that Europe and America didn’t want to do. As long as the money flowed in—okay! Meanwhile, the fat cats in the West, those latter-day colonists, saw in China: no human rights, no labor protections, no environmental safeguards, no free press—also okay! A basis for trade! Both sides loved the deal.
When we speak of competition and trade, the question of fairness arises. Diplomacy enters. There is something ludicrous about the diplomacy, though, because trade itself is based on social unfairness. Bilateral diplomatic arguments over fairness are in fact arguments about material interests of the two negotiating sides, not about fairness among human beings. Both negotiating sides are devils. In matters of right and wrong, there is little to choose between them.
Lao: What is ‘addiction,’ in your view?
Weiwei: Emotions and sensations can give people pleasure, and patterns of entering into certain mental or physical states can become entrenched through the repeated doing of things like emotional intercourse, games, or drugs. Addictive activities cause the body to excrete a chemical that creates intense pleasure. With continual recourse to the activities, people eventually lose self-control and are said to be ‘addicted.’ It is the loss of self-control that gives addiction its bad reputation.
Lao: Why are people affected when people around them are either happy or sad?
Weiwei: This question is related to the last one. Whether we feel happy or not comes from a complex mix of emotional factors within us, but also from chemicals in our bloodstream. The way we feel about ourselves has to do with things going on inside our bodies. But it also has to do with things outside our bodies, like what we see in people around us. The joy, mirth, love, anger, worry, melancholy and hatred we see in others all affect the way we feel inside as well as the ways in which we perceive those moods in others. Happy people see happiness; sad ones see sadness.
“Certain patterns in society, like the inordinate power of capital, resist destruction as well .But without destroying certain things, there can be no room for creation. So building and destruction are not opposed; they are two sides of the same thing. They appear together. If creation does not emerge, it is because destruction is not complete.”
Lao: Which is most important in human development: science, philosophy, morality, or human nature?
Weiwei: None of the four items you name can be done without. Without science or philosophy, our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us would be incomplete. But human nature and morality are equally important, because one tells ‘what is’ in us and the other ‘what ought to be.’ Science and philosophy need both of these; without them, they would be flying blind. On the whole, though, human nature is the most important of the four. The other three, while indispensable, are components of human nature.
Lao: You miss your mother a lot these days, but probably cannot go back to China to see her.
Weiwei: My mother gave me life. She is the only person, other than you, who has a blood relationship with me. But to go back to see her would be to violate her own wishes because she loves me, and for her, my safety is more important than my seeing her. Such separation is a price that Chinese dissidents have to pay. If I went back to China, where normal legal protections are absent, I could be ‘disappeared’ or kidnapped or spend the rest of my life in prison. I have to consider these things. The problem is not that I cannot go back; it is that if I did, I would face results that my mother does not want to see.
Lao: Do you like hummus?
Weiwei: Yes. Excellent food. When I was on Lesbos island shooting the film Human Flow, I had no problem eating lots of hummus. It was great!
Lao: Do you think morality is higher than power, or the other way around?
Weiwei: Morality is higher. Power that thinks it is higher than morality lacks legitimacy. We need to stress morality. Within human nature, morality has more breadth and longevity than power has.
Lao: Do human decisions come from the head or the heart?
Weiwei: Your question has beauty. If I turn to my brain for an answer, the answer will be ‘from the brain’; if I follow my feelings, it will be ‘from the heart.’ Reason and emotions are both parts of the complete person. Like lips and teeth. Only the brain can be terrifying or boring; only emotions can be chaotic or unreasonable.
Lao: If you had another cat, what would its name be?
Weiwei: Another cat.
Lao: Do you think an extreme god exists?
Weiwei: I don’t think so. I do think a god exists, but it is friendly, not extreme. It harbors no malice.
There are the answers. My thanks to Ai Lao.