Rubble and Dinosaurs

An interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ai Weiwei

This interview took place by telephone in 2013, as Ai Weiwei was at this time unable to travel. He had recently unveiled a series of politically charged works at the 55th Venice Biennale, including the six-part architectural installation S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013). Curated by Maurizio Bortolotti and installed in the church of Sant'Antonin, the work comprised six enclosed metal rooms into which the visitor spied from above. Inside each box was a realistic diorama of a scene from Ai Weiwei's 81-day incarceration by the Chinese authorities in 2011. Viewers could survey the artist prone on a bed, or under interrogation, all the time surrounded by guards. He was allowed only one visitor during his detention, his wife. Straight, installed in the city's Zuecca Project Space, was an undulated landscape formed from 150 tons of steel recovered from a school building that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, killing over 1,000 children.

These works are not exclusively about conditions in China. They should recall to us the numerous abuses of power and privilege that take place every day, in every country around the world. We should remember the many thousands of political prisoners currently under detention, on whose behalf Ai Weiwei is protesting. The poor construction standards that made inevitable the collapse of a school building in Sichuan are symptomatic of a wider disregard for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Our conversation, like Ai Weiwei's work, engages with themes of surveillance, personal dignity and communication.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Last time we met there were all these crab sculptures in the studio and all the metal bars from the earthquake. That was just before the production of S.A.C.R.E.D. started. I wanted to ask you how the whole Venice show began.

AI WEIWEI: The Venice show was in three parts really. One was for the German Pavilion — I was invited to exhibit with three artists from different locations [Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mokofeng and Dayanita Singh]. I did the other two parts with Zuecca Project Space in collaboration with Lisson Gallery: one was in an old church; another was also in what was once some kind of religious space.

The first work is from the Sichuan earthquake, the bars I picked up from a school. In that high school alone, over a thousand students disappeared in the earthquake. Obviously, there were a lot of buildings from different times, some are still standing but some collapsed completely because of their construction. It’s very common in a poor area to have these poor buildings; it’s a tragedy. It’s natural curiosity to want to see real names behind the numbers, because a name is a last symbol of a life — you can’t just have numbers, at least people should be allowed their names. We made an attempt and the state refused to give any names — they were top secret. So we said, okay, let’s do the research ourselves.

HUO: So there was no official list of the people who died?

AWW: It was never released. We became kind of frustrated and angry and it brought us to a point where you either accept this kind of answer or you find out yourself. So we said, why don’t we try to do real social research — although it’s more like an art project, because you come up with the concept and then you follow the concept precisely.

HUO: How did you find the names if there was no official list?

AWW: We had to go village by village and family by family, to talk to all the parents — ask them, or whoever has the names. We visited a hundred families.

HUO: So you have a team?

AWW: Yeah, we have about 40 people and a lot of people were arrested, over 40 times in different locations, and in the police stations wherever they found the names they crossed it out, just to cover it, or tore pages or deleted photos, or deleted the recordings. But after about a year’s effort, we finally reached 5,266 students’ names, with their birthday, their school, which class they were in and also their family contacts. We filmed interviews with parents and just asked them how they found out their children were missing and what happened after the earthquake. Very simple social research. I made a promise on my blog not to stop till I found the last name, or till I couldn’t push anymore because I’m not there anymore. We pushed the state and they finally give us a solid number, 5,335, and we had found 5,266 names. Of course, some names were not possible to find, maybe the whole family disappeared or the kindergarten children were too small to recall their classmates’ names.

HUO: You traced 5,266 people — that’s incredible.

AWW: That’s probably the first organized civil action taken by anybody in this society.

Every day we showed it to the public, so a lot of people were watching. Every morning, in the towns, people came to see the day’s results — could be three, could be 20 students — until the government found it unbearable and had to shut down three of my blogs on the same day, 28 May 2009. Since then my websites and my name haven’t been able to appear on the domestic Internet at all.

HUO: You showed us the office — it used to be your architecture office but now it’s your computer office — and the desk where you go every morning. You do a lot of work on the Internet but not on your own blog. Now it’s mostly tweets…

AWW: We can use special technical tools to ’climb over’ the Great Firewall to get on Twitter, Instagram and other sites, like Google+, so I can still have communication with about 220,000 Chinese people. I still have the highest following on Chinese Twitter.

HUO: Is that Weibo?

AWW: No, I mean the Chinese-speaking community on Twitter, they are either computer technicians or political activists. My name cannot appear on Weibo, nor anything related to me. People have even done tests, taken a picture of the back of me and posted it on Weibo — that will get deleted. They are watching any information related to me very carefully. They don’t even let people criticise me. If you say something bad about me, they also won’t permit it… it’s like this old guy with the beard is just not there.

HUO: And then you have Instagram, but you don’t use that directly?

AWW: Instagram I use directly, I just put two of your photos on it… communication is the game. We realized that we can immediately put work on the Internet and get exposure to grow the work, at the same time we’re learning how to respond to this kind of communication.

HUO: So Instagram and Twitter, is there anything else you can do?

AWW: Oh, we just designed the Moon.

HUO: Olafur [Eliasson] emailed it to me. Can you tell us about it, how did this collaboration with Olafur work? You are supposed to have your studio there, in Berlin?

AWW: My studio is at the foot of Olafur’s, literally, it’s in the basement. We got to know each other and we always have discussions. He is very supportive because I cannot travel so he has become like a spokesperson for many of my shows, introducing them to the public. I’m quite grateful for that. One German, this scientist from Falling Walls, asked me to give a talk [at their 2013 conference] and Olafur would introduce my work. Before the Venice Biennale we couldn’t talk about work, we had to make a new work, so we decided to use that opportunity to introduce a possibility for people who cannot really meet each other, like me and him, but who can through today’s technology. We put up this site, Moon, for anybody in the world, no matter what nationality or language or religion, to make a mark, a sign, something personal that shows your character.

HUO: Handwriting…

AWW: Handwriting, that’s part of the inspiration actually. It reminds me of what you do, as an artist… I thought to myself, this is so important that we should build a site, so anybody — children, or people from Iran or from India or from China — they all can make a mark. A mark can be understood, even if you don’t know the language you can be sensitive to it.

HUO: It can be graffiti, it can be a sketch…

AWW: Yeah, it can be anything, even be the most innocent kisses. I think that liberates people from typing; most images are so formal because it’s all done by machine — this can be done by hand. You can see the pressure, the speed, the sense of a breeze, the temperature, the sensitivity of the touch.

HUO: So the site is called Moon?

AWW:, We tried to register as one moon, but it’s been taken; two moons taken; three moons taken; four moons nobody took. I said, okay let’s take four moons.

It’s an area we think can still be explored and can be very fresh. It’s quite exciting. Gradually a lot of people are doing things on it and we have to upgrade — this is a first try. We also have to finish another large project this year, which came out of Twitter. It relates to this activist for women and sex workers’ rights.

HUO: Can you tell me about it?

AWW: A lady, her name is Ye Haiyan, is working in China with sex workers. It’s a huge industry but forbidden. She works to tell them how to protect themselves, to instruct them how to deal with the possible diseases such as AIDS and other problems. She said she wanted to do the right thing, morally, and thought she should also be a prostitute, otherwise she wasn’t in the same position. So she offered, more like symbolically offered migrants, the poorest people who come to the city, some kind of sex opportunities. Her activity became very sensitive because the government didn’t like her, the way she openly discussed those matters… I had an interview with her a long time ago. So one morning I saw a Tweet that said something like, ’I’ve been surrounded by police from southern China, near Guangzhou; they took all my belongings, put them on the truck and took me on the highway, dropped me on the roadside and said, get out of here, don’t let us see you again, otherwise we’ll break your legs.’ So she was very sad. I saw a photo where she is sitting on her luggage. I saw a refrigerator or air conditioner, a bicycle or a little motorcycle, some paper boxes. So I asked her, ’What are you going to do?’ She said, ’I’m going to sell those on the next street then I have to go get some money and go back to my old home town.’ I said, ’Wait a minute, just pack everything and send to me’, and I gave her some money for it so she could do the resettlement. She was very happy; she sent everything to me. I wanted all her belongings, except she still owned her dress, and her body. Everything came to Beijing and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I said, let’s examine it and we opened it box by box…

HUO: It’s almost like that Christian Boltanski piece, you know that piece from the 1970s? All the objects belonging to a woman. He just exhibited all the clothes, everything, all the belongings.

AWW: Exactly as you said, I don t know this piece but we made a clear list, photographed each object and put it back — we made drawings as it was positioned on the street. We’re going to exhibit the whole thing in Brooklyn, when I have a show in April.

HUO: To go back to the earthquake piece — once you had accomplished this research and the 5,000 names had been identified, you then did several things. You made the list of all the names, which I saw in your office.

AWW: We had to make it for ourselves to believe, because what is 5,000 names? We were all very surprised that, even when printed so small, they really cover the whole wall. Otherwise it’s hard to imagine how much 5,000 is. Of course in Chinese history we often see Anti-Rightists championing the 300,000 intellectuals who were purged, punished — my father was also one of them. In different political struggles it’s always half a million or a few million people who are punished, even sentenced or killed. Those are just numbers. This is a society that’s still not really paying attention to individuals, to who they are, and that’s an essential question. So we said, our purpose is to respect those lives and never forget. Then we put their names on the wall, but at the same time we asked people how, on the Internet, they could convey their pain or release this kind of frustration. So, I said, each of you can choose one name and pronounce it, just read one name. Over 10,000 people participated, reading these 5,000 names, using their phone or anything to record it, and then sending the name to us. We edited together people reading these 5,000 names to about seven hours. We tried several ways to make people understand what those names mean, how they can be related to ourselves, and we are still making new works about it. That’s the kind of society I live in, that’s the kind of reality I have to face and that’s a debt I have to pay.

HUO: But when we were here last time, something new had happened in relation to this earthquake, which you showed in Venice — these deformed metallic pieces, these sculptures. Can you tell us about how that started?

AWW: For the metal piece we dld in Venice, we collected about 200 tonnes of metal rebar from those schools. Of course that had to be done quite secretly

HUO: So it’s the debris, the rubble from the disaster?

AWW: Yeah, the rubble. People were collecting the metals to resell, so we bought them.

HUO: You were saying there was a lot of rubble around Beijing; it’s amazing looking in some neighbourhoods. It’s quite apocalyptic, rubble everywhere.

AWW: Yeah, it’s true, everywhere in China, in past decades, there’s ruins. They have just taken old buildings down to rebuild them, which is why there is this provisional landscape: after they destroy the old and before they’ve built the new, they have a gap for the time being, an in-between old and new. It’s going to be filled up by the new buildings or new city or road. So I took a lot of photos of that moment, thousands of photos [Provisional Landscapes, 2002-08], and so I am very familiar with ruins. After we moved all those metals back to Beijing, I didn’t

know how to deal with it, so the final decision was to stretch all of them into the condition they were in when they first came from the factory. That had to be done by a human, so we hired a lot of workers and every day they just used hammers to bend and straighten them to a perfect line. Each metal piece contains over 200 punches or bends to make it straight, and there are maybe 100,000 of them, from maybe a half metre to two or three metres long. Altogether it’s 150 tonnes of metal. So what we showed in Venice is just part of it, about half.

HUO: Wow, so there is more.

AWW: Oh yes, much more, because what we are showing in Miami [Perez Art Museum] is also part of it. But that’s just one quarter of the piece. I’ll never have a chance to show all of them because it requires a larger space.

HUO: Can you tell me about the second installation in Venice, S.A.C.R.E.D, based on your prison cell? Was it all made out of memory or did you have photographic documentation?

AWW: It made my memory like a photograph. I spent 81 days there but most of the time I was just sitting there calculating everything. It become a daily practice to memorize all the details in the room — and there’s nothing in the room, physically, everything is wrapped in these soft cushions to cover up even the toilet, or the hand washing, the water… how you say…

HUO: The sink?

AWW: Yeah, the sink. Everywhere is badly taped, to cover it, as if you are suicidal or something.

HUO: You were brought there the first day of the arrest?

AWW: No, after a week they moved me into this military, highly secret place, with my head covered in a black hood.

HUO: You didn’t know where you went, they drove you there blind?

AWW: After I was released I used Google Maps, searching inch by inch for the location. I called the police, I said I know the location; he said, that’s not possible; I said do you want me to show you? He hesitated, he said okay, I never heard of this conversation, he hung up. Yeah, I found the location.

HUO: You found it through Google Maps?

AWW: Yes, it took me a long time looking…

HUO: But did you have your phone there?

AWW: No, I had nothing. You cannot even bring a toothpick in there.

HUO: So it wasn’t possible to write?

AWW: No, you’re not supposed to sit like how you sit now. You have to sit like this — two hands here like this, two military soldiers standing right next to you — they look at you like this, motionless, 24 hours a day.

HUO: Without moving?

AWW: No talking, no moving. You have to do everything with your hands so the guards can check; they say yes or no, then they walk back half a foot, then you stand up, then he follows you step by step to the water glass, you drink and they put you back down to sit there again.

HUO: There are many examples of writers or poets who wrote diaries in jail, but it wasn’t possible for you to write?

AWW: Only if they ask you to write something like a confession, then they bring you paper and you write. Your pen also has to be tied to a point, so you can’t move the pen. After you write they take all the paper away. Even the soldiers, when they leave the room they will be searched by other soldiers, to see if they are carrying anything out like a note. So the conditions were hard to describe but once I came out so many people cared and were curious and asked about what happened. I said, why don’t I just make it, sculpt it, to show it just like the Natural History Museum always shows the dinosaurs. That was the intention.

HUO: But it’s fascinating it all came out of memory — there was no photography, no drawing, not even a floor plan came out.

AWW: In my case I can clearly measure it by seeing the tiles, how many tiles: I counted the tiles, I know the size exactly. Every day I used my eyes to measure everything. There’s nothing to do, so I tried to memorize my life, every detail, since I have memory, but after two weeks I had nothing to think about, my whole head became empty. I realized your life only takes you that much time to memorize if you have nothing else around you. I started having illusions — you know, here is something that doesn’t exist. They gave me pills, I don’t know what they were but they said it is to help your mind and I had to take them. I couldn’t sleep, I would always be alert. The light was always on and they were always staring, two people standing over you, watching you. Also I couldn’t turn around on the bed; I always had to show my hands, out on the blanket, so I couldn’t sleep on my side. Every time you made a noise, they knock. So that’s why I had to make this. I was very careful because making it out of different parts, in different locations, was very difficult.

HUO: But how did you find it on Google Maps, the location? That’s a mystery to me, because you didn’t have a phone, and if they blindfolded you, how did you get that?

AWW: I realized the soldiers had also become like prisoners. They were eager to talk to me, because they were 19 or 20 years old, they came to the building to serve their military service but they never left the building in three years. After military service, they were sent straight back to the poor town they’re from. The only thing to attract them there is very good food — they ate whatever I ate. It’s very high quality detention because I would always get four dishes, different cooking, and in the morning they got milk and egg, and in prison they only give this kind of treatment to high officials or high political people. They have to pay a lot of attention, watching every move to make sure you’re not going to commit suicide. Each day a doctor comes in three times…

HUO: To supervise…

AWW: Exactly, they never talk. I had my heart checked with a machine three times — they pulled the machine into the room and they did these kind of laboratory tests. I’ve never had that in my entire life. And I became very healthy — except mentally almost crazy — but my body lost weight.

HUO: Physically very healthy.

AWW: I lost almost 30 pounds. My blood pressure and my sugar levels became normal. That’s what they predicted: the first day I arrived, they asked about my body condition, I told them and they said, don’t worry, after a while you will become very healthy. It’s very strange, everybody’s like that. So I had to walk in six tiles, each tile 60 centimetres by 6o centimetres, six tiles is 3 metres 60, back and forth, five hours a day. I added up that I’d already walked to Shanghai, a very long walk, over a thousand kilometres, walking every day, besides interrogation and sitting.

HUO: How many hours did you sleep?

AWW: I could sleep nine or ten hours there but I would be awake. I would just lie there with my eyes wide open. I could only sleep, really sleep, for two or three hours. I think it’s given me the opportunity to do a work like this and that’s become my responsibility, because so many people have been there, they’re not artists or they’re shy to tell people what happened, and so many people are still there.

HUO: As Frances Yates wrote in The Art of Memory [1966], one can connect memory to space.

AWW: I wanted this site to mimic the situation. It confronts any viewer because the way you look at it, it’s half the size of reality. I hadn’t told my mother that I was making this work, but then she had never travelled to Europe before.

HUO: So she came to Venice?

AWW: I said, ’Oh, I have a show there, why don’t you go to see it?’

HUO: So they invited her to go?

AWW: My mum went into the church and looked around at the design, without paying attention to the six boxes, and my assistant said, why don’t you look? She was shocked because that was such a painful time for her — she didn’t know where her son was, nobody gave her any answer, even family like her. My father was in a very high position, had the highest possible literature award, many revolutionary leaders can recite his poetry today. They always mention his poetry in the public gallery to show he’s a patriotic poet. The first day I was arrested, I asked the secret police, ’Why are you arresting me?’ They said, ’Your subversion of state power.’ I said, ’How so? Can I call a lawyer?’ They said ’No.’ I said, ’Can I make just one call to my family or could you call to tell them I am in your hands and not to worry?’ They said no. I said, ’How long does this condition apply?’ They said, ’Could be half a year minimum, could be longer, a year and a half, without telling anybody.’ So I feel I was kidnapped. I told them, it reminds me of my father: he was also arrested, sentenced for six years by the Nationalist Party.

HUO: During the Cultural Revolution?

AWW: No, much earlier, right after he got back from Paris in 1930, I think.

HUO: And why, what was the reason?

AWW: Subversion of state power. So I said, ’Ah! This is the same as what happened to my father 80 years ago.’ He said, ’No the time is different.’ I almost felt a sense of release because I was almost a little bit jealous of my father, that he was arrested, put in jail, and I thought that would never happen to me. Now we’re even!

HUO: How long was your father in jail?

AWW: He served three and a half years.

HUO: And that’s when they confiscated all his books and destroyed them?

AWW: That’s later, during the Cultural Revolution. I helped them to bum all those books. It sounds like a story but it’s real. So the purpose of making that kind of sculpture is to make it a story again, so I can just forget about it, I don’t have to talk about it; it’s already become a story, like a dinosaur. And it doesn’t need explanation. I made this music video, Dumbass [2013], that portrayed my situation, the room I was in, realistically. The police called me and said, ’Weiwei, how did you make this? It’s so real — you got back into the room?’ They were completely confused. ’I noticed the wallpaper,’ they said, because in those soft cushions are holes, uncovered, so you see the wallpaper through them, and that’s where they put their microphones in the wall to record the conversations, if you wanted to talk to the guards, and besides this there were three surveillance cameras. Then I realized they [the police] really examined the video to blow it up, to find out all the details, line by line, so they got a surprise. I said, well, I’m an artist, that’s what I do. They said, we are very impressed, those were their last words.

HUO: I still haven’t asked you how you found it. So you found it through a contact?

AWW: There were three surveillance cameras, to prevent the guards talking to me, but they developed a way to talk without moving their lips. They started to question me, asking who I am, why I am there, and they started to tell me all their stories — where they come from, their love stories, asking what’s it like in America… anything. We had this kind of conversation daily, during walking or sleeping, without them moving their mouths. It was such a surreal scene. One day, I don’t know what happened, they had to move away. They said, ’Maybe after today I will never see you again, I will never say bye to you,’ it was quite dramatic. They sensed there would be another group coming and that they would be taken away. So I pronounced my phone number, I said, ’If I’m sentenced for 13 years and you call me up on the phone I will never answer. But after you leave the post, telephone.’ So one day after I was released the phone rang, and someone said, I am out of service now. I talked to him. I was so disappointed; he didn’t know where that place was either! He only knew that it was somewhere in Beijing and he mentioned one address he overheard his leaders saying. I knew that area because I used to have a poetry reading nearby there in the 1970s. He told me clearly that outside of his dormitory there’s another residential building — he used to stand on his dormitory to watch the girls going up the staircase. So we looked at each building, then I saw exercise areas from the roofs you can see where they go to lunch, where they do exercise. And we found the building. He was so impressed when he saw Google Maps because there was espionage but now everybody can use it.

HUO: And did he see the video? Did you show him the video?

AWW: Yes of course, it was a total shock, he was completely shocked.

HUO: It’s an incredible story of retracing…

AWW: It’s such a satisfaction, but the game is not over.