Ai Weiwei: Why did you study painting?
Zhao Zhao: They didn’t have martial arts classes.
Later, he was able to learn martial arts and I ask if that helped him in painting. He says it did because he would practice by kicking trees, which taught him to judge distance with his eyes. It is connected to perspective. Close objects seem large, and far-away objects seem small. If you kick someone in the head, you have to judge it precisely; if you miss, you’re in trouble. You have to be careful about kicking people.
AW: As soon as you kick, you reveal all of your vulnerabilities. What happens if you miss?
ZZ: Then I would be finished.
AW: That feeling of missing a kick is probably something you feel in life as well. Have you felt it recently?
ZZ: Not recently. It’s been a long time. I have no precise goals in my life.
It seems that Zhao Zhao’s works in recent years possess artistic traits, or perhaps you can’t say they have artistic interests but instead have certain direct things, certain actions or weighted presumptions built into them. They have been designed.
Zhao Zhao thinks that an artwork is primarily a process for him at this point in time. It should be a dull, aimless thing. He also avoids too much involvement in issues such as production, of how to create a work. For these statues, these Buddha statues, he cuts away what was originally there, and this process fits with his conception of a dull, desolate process. When completed, what emerges is basic stone material.
I ask him if there were a lot of Uighur girls at the Xinjiang Arts Institute. He says there were, but they didn’t interact with the Han Chinese. There was distance back then. When he was there, the classes—as at other art academies—were divided by major. In his first year, there were some students from the ethnic minorities, but they wouldn’t get very close. When eating and whatnot, they wouldn’t sit with the Han Chinese. I say I figured they wouldn’t even do fake marriages to scam some money.
“Right,” he says. “This is about basic dignity, basic belief. As for money...”
I say that the Han like to use money to deal with things. Zhao Zhao believes that money is the basis of life. If you have money, you can be stable for a while. On this point, Zhao says this idea of maintaining stability is in line with the Chinese dream.
Once we’re rich, then things will go smoothly. The world will come to us, and we’ll be great.
Zhao thinks the separation among different peoples he experienced in Xinjiang was normal. Xinjiang is their place, and has nothing to do with the Han. There are policies for every little detail of the lives of these farm people, including how many sheep each family can raise.
ZZ: When people speak of Xinjiang, all you hear about are lamb kebabs and thieves. What can a pastoral people do? They’ll live however they want. They don’t even learn Chinese! How are they supposed to find jobs? If you want a job, you have to enter a work unit, join the party, it’s all just too hard for a minority group.
He continues but I don’t really follow.
I ask him why his father joined the Party. He says his father simply felt that to follow the Party was the right path. I ask Zhao how that influenced his own life, and he says it had a great influence. The father and son don’t get along now, because a while ago, while they were talking on the phone, the topic of America came up. His father asked, “What’s so great about America,” and Zhao went off on him.
AW: How can you speak to your father like that? You know, he was the one who introduced you here.
ZZ: But he doesn’t know what you’ve been up to.
AW: Shit. I wasn’t doing anything back in ’04.
ZZ: He didn’t know specifically what you were up to. Now that he does, I think it’s a bit better.
AW: Then what? You just hung around in Caochangdi?
ZZ: Right. Then I brought one of my catalogs to show you. You flipped through it, and said it was all Expressionism.
AW: Why Expressionism?
ZZ: It was painted rather—it wasn’t abstract, it was figurative, but really had nothing to do with realism. It’s just colors smeared around. Then you said there doesn’t seem to be any point in painting. You asked what else I do, and I said I make documentaries.
I told him to show me his films, and he burned me a disc. He [had] filmed a Uighur girl. The film had an interesting focus. It wasn’t the kind of subject that most people would choose, or the kind of film a student would make. It was a very headstrong film, doggedly following that girl.
ZZ: She was just a vagrant. I didn’t know what to film, I just wanted to film a documentary, to pick up the camera and point it at something. Cassettes were really expensive back then, 38 yuan each. When I bought the camera, the guy gave me five cassettes, which comes out to 180 yuan. One cassette can hold 63 minutes of footage. I just followed things closely. I wouldn’t start filming until something happened. It wasn’t like later on, when I’d just keep the camera rolling. I didn’t have a lot of footage then.
I ask about the girl.
AW: Do you think she’s probably dead by now?
ZZ: It’s hard to say. I filmed her all winter. She still had teeth at first, but they were all gone by the end of the winter.
AW: She’s done for if she’s out of teeth. Did you give her money?
ZZ: No. I didn’t have any money then.
AW: You picked up your first pile of money here with me?
ZZ: That first pile of money? Of course.
AW: What about the second pile? The third pile?
ZZ: Yep, all of it. Even now.
AW: So I guess you could say you have money now?
ZZ: Right. I was lost for a long time. It wasn’t until after Kassel in ’07 that I started feeling...
AW: You hadn’t found your way.
ZZ: Right. I had no direction.
[Kassel in ’07 refers to “Necklace,” a 2007 piece created by Zhao Zhao, who utilized a piece of stone broken off from Joseph Beuys’ 700 Oaks project in Kassel, Germany.]
It was training. For a long time, mainly early on, he was filming Chang’an Avenue [For the 2004 Ai Weiwei film, “Beijing Chang’an Boulevard”] and the Bird’s Nest [Stadium in Beijing, designed by Ai Weiwei for use during the 2008 Summer Olympics]. It was a dull time. The films were too long, and there wasn’t any so-called creativity in it. It was just a concept, with no sense of creation. All it needed was a certain amount of precision. It was probably quite depressing.
Then there was Kassel, and the pavilion fell.1 Zhao Zhao remembers the pavilion falling. Starting in ’05, we went to a lot of places together. We went to Austria in ’05. He remembers it well because it was his first time abroad. After that we went everywhere—Germany, Australia, Switzerland, America, Japan, Spain. I said to him, “This feeling of wandering aimlessly without getting lost is probably connected to the time you rode your bike to Tibet in the early years, right?”
Zhao Zhao never really had any friends in Xinjiang. I don’t know about other people but for him it was pretty lonely. He was just passing the time there, ever since he was a child. He still remembers when they knocked down the house to build some kind of factory. He would just play there, stacking up the bricks and just messing around. Before you knew it, another day had passed. I ask if he was building something.
“I would just be playing around in the rubble,” he says, “and the days would just go by. I didn’t have any friends. When I was with other people, they’d say something I’d never heard before. I was always curious, wanting to hear what others were saying.”
I ask him when he first began to grow interested in what he was doing. He thinks it started when he began traveling. On the road, he would go to a lot of museums, and when he saw the works that he had once only seen in art books, it made a deep impression.
He began to think about this, about what an artwork is, what art is. It was all a bit fuzzy, though, because at the academy he was constantly working away at painting. But after graduation something else intervened.
About halfway into 2005, we went to the Salzburg Summer Academy in Austria. I was teaching some students, and we were talking about conceptual art. We got to the issue of the origin of an artwork. I had several students at the time, just some random students, but they were all quite good. You can see that this act of creation is something rooted in each individual. The conditions must be right. Most training gets those conditions wrong, so it is quite arduous.
AW: What do you think about Caochangdi? The studio at Caochangdi.
ZZ: It was in late November 2004, after the dinner for Liu Xiaodong’s exhibition. We ate at Lido, and after dinner, everyone went home, and you said you wanted to go there. We went from Lido to the 258 Studio. It was my first time. It was really late. The yard was empty, not like now, where it’s full of plants. The willows weren’t so tall then either. There weren’t any artworks. You showed me the exhibition hall, the one next to your room. There were 15 or 16 wooden logs there, just a big pile of wood.
AW: Those were there for a while.
ZZ: Yes, they were there for a while. When I went, I wondered, “Is this an artwork? That’s nice.”
There was no way to sell it. I ended up making a map out of it. He thought it was nice, he thought it was just right. So after that night, that’s what he was doing. The others in my studio were just drawing things, and it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with art. Zhao Zhao felt that he didn’t have any connection to traditional art.
AW: And then you went off shooting every day, or whenever you wanted to shoot. We didn’t really interact much then, right?
ZZ: When I started shooting, we didn’t interact much. I would come home very late to watch it. If you think about it, from 2005 to 2007 we would go out to eat every day. We did this for years, just eating dinner every day. Fatty would drive the car in the daytime, and for dinner, I would do the driving, taking you to dinner and coming back very late.
He thought he was getting some good shots. He hadn’t used the 4 x 5 camera before. It took a long time, and a lot of wasted film, before he figured out how to use it. Just building up that technical base was quite a chore. Zhao Zhao never thought much about the technical stuff. He’s not the type to be interested in that.
Then, after I finished with the Bird’s Nest, I got busy, and I encountered the Yang Jia case. Kassel was something that everyone was talking about, but this Yang Jia case was a real incident.
Zhao Zhao feels that I put a lot of heart into this issue. The Yang Jia incident2 was a special case. When we heard about it, the two of us went over to their house to have a look. Their windows had been broken, and it was very hot. When we drove up to the apartment complex, it felt like there were people stationed all over the place. That’s what it felt like. Looking back now, we were really in the zone.
ZZ: Yeah, we were really in the zone. I think that when you really get involved in some incident, it feels a lot like that first time we went to Yang Jia’s home.
Neither of us feels that this has anything to do with art. Actually, making “Fairytale” [an exhibit for 2007’s Documenta 12, in which Zhao Zhao solicited 1,001 participants from a variety of different social backgrounds to live in a dormitory in Kassel during the duration of the show] had already transcended this, ignoring the issues of the past and now dealing with a new, concrete issue. Interpretation is for later.
Zhao Zhao quietly watched for several years how I came up. I started out from zero. I laid some pillars out in a room for several years, maybe two or three. I don’t know. I just felt that I didn’t have an opportunity. Also, if I didn’t do something, what could I do? When the opportunity came, at least I knew I could always do nothing. Actually, I didn’t know this was feasible. I just followed my interests. In this light, interests are very important. [The pillars would become Ai Weiwei’s 2002 sculpture, “Table and Pillar.”]
Zhao Zhao agrees that interests are important, but what matters is that certain types of people get involved in certain types of things. What kind of person you are determines what kinds of insights you have, and you enter into this kind of state. Other people go a long time before they can talk about it, right?
For Zhao Zhao, 2008 marked a great turning point. Three things happened: Yang Jia, the Olympics, and the Sichuan earthquake. We went to Sichuan together. He took part in all these things. Though he didn’t design the Bird’s Nest, he did document the construction process in film. He also did the filming for the Yang Jia incident.
I was writing things online every day at that time, and putting up the structure. But the earthquake was a huge deal. I can’t remember how many days it was after the earthquake that we went to Wenchuan, but Zhao Zhao remembers. He says we went to Sichuan four days after the earthquake.
“We started heading for Yingxiu, in the disaster zone,” he recalls. “You were taking photographs and I was taking videos. When we passed the Yingxiu Middle School we saw that the list of student names had been torn down. We were stupefied. You almost didn’t notice it.”
He continues, “I never thought it would provoke such a reaction. I thought that now everyone had their eyes on Sichuan, the issue would get elevated. We went to the Communications Office several times, and caused a scene at the Public Security Bureau. It felt like you were always fighting with them. I didn’t know they would come after you one day. I never imagined.”
Zhao Zhao says he can only work his way up from little things. “For instance, with this earthquake, I’m thinking that if I had gone out there on my own, I would just film a documentary. I wouldn’t set out to find some single point to do an exposé on. It’s the same with Yang Jia. I think you can do these things in a very complete way. Actually, I think it’s not just about the actions of a single individual, because you use the Internet to activate the whole thing. You bring up a topic, and this topic becomes effective on the Internet. Whether it’s the people cursing you, or the people following you, this thing has an effect. You are able to grasp on to what makes it effective.” That’s how he sees it.
Zhao Zhao believes it’s about interests, about where you direct your energies. “For example, if I never met you,” he says, “I wouldn’t be doing this. Maybe over these past few years, I would’ve been painting in some village.” He says that if he weren’t an artist, he’d probably end up a thug. I think what he means is that he has this unbearable sense of repression. What does it come from? From the body, the family, the society or what?
He says, “All of the above.”
I ask him which artwork made him feel, when he finished it, that this is what he wanted to do. Which artwork made him feel he could begin, that he could get started? He says it was probably “broken officer sculpture” from 2011.
“Officer” is a lot like a mobster movie. The boss has been killed, and we’re watching after he’s been shot, right? They go to the hospital and say that this body has to be moved. That artwork [was] immediately met with problems. This was the starting point, and there was a lot of conflict around it. A lot of stuff about motives and concepts.
Something he started in 2007 was to glue a pebble onto Tiananmen Square [for Zhao Zhao’s 2007 work “Cobblestone,” a site-specific performance piece].
I ask, “You had this awareness because the Olympics were approaching, right? You were dressing up as a member of the People’s Armed Police, and “Standing Guard” at Tiananmen Gate. It was already linked to the police state. You felt that control at this time was inevitable.”
On August 8, 2008, he did “On Guard” at Tiananmen Gate [A performance piece in which Zhao Zhao stood in Tiananmen Square for over two hours while wearing a police uniform]. I told him to be careful, not to make trouble. We had breakfast together that day. We ate noodles. There’s a photograph. After 2008, he started seeking. He didn’t have any clear direction.
Zhao Zhao says that after the exhibition in 2011 he started to have a clear idea that he wanted to do something. There was a solo exhibition planned for April 2012, but all of the artworks from 2008 to 2011 that had been packed up in three shipping containers got confiscated by customs at Tianjin. They still haven’t been released. To this day, we haven’t heard anything about them.
Of course he never wanted this to happen, but there was this metaphysical force at work, in that someone else cared about these artworks, and they cared very much about them, because three hours before the boat was scheduled to leave port, the State Security Bureau had the whole boat stopped, just to take these three containers off. That kind of thing usually happens only for drugs or weapons. Everything was confiscated, and we still have no idea what was going on. It had nothing to do with the police. Zhao Zhao says that between the sculptures, paintings, and photographs, there were over 20 artworks in total.
ZZ: I was thinking at the time that perhaps it was because of “Officer.” Maybe they found the image provocative? He was wearing a police uniform and hat. Maybe that was the problem.
AW: The uniform and the hat, wasn’t it all carved out of stone?
ZZ: It was carved out of stone, but it was the image of the police officer. I was thinking maybe they would trump it up.
AW: You never know, right? Were you nervous?
ZZ: I was pretty nervous throughout 2012.
AW: Because of what happened in 2011.
ZZ: I started getting shut out after that. The first time was at Jing Gallery in Caochangdi. We were doing a five-person exhibition with He Yunchang, Xia Xing, two sculptors, and myself. The exhibition was set to open on a Saturday. On Friday night we finished setting up the exhibition, and at 11 p.m., the gallery owner and two managers were brought in to talk with the Cuigezhuang Police. They were picked up at 11 p.m., and kept at the police station until three in the morning.
AW: There weren’t any ads for the exhibition, and there wasn’t any discussion in the papers. How did they find out about the exhibition?
ZZ: There were posters, and it was announced online. They must have sent out the announcement a week before the exhibition. The gallery owner called me up crying. She was afraid. She apologized, saying the police told her she couldn’t do my exhibition. The police said that I wasn’t an artist. I was taken out of the exhibition. It was all very confusing. What’s your take on it?
AW: How can you not be an artist? That means maybe I’m not an artist either. This is clearly a political issue. The state apparatus was put into motion. How could it not be political? But it’s also clearly an aesthetic issue, because the state has defined what beauty is, deciding who isn’t an artist and what isn’t an artwork. Politics always seems to intervene.
ZZ: It’s that you can’t make a statement. Otherwise, you’ll possibly face these threats. Not possibly, you must be restricted, and when the time comes, it’ll be ruthless. They never came to see me.
AW: This is something they do very well. When I did “The Black Cover Book,” [a book co-produced by Xu Bing, Zeng Xiaojun, and Ai Weiwei in 1994 that featured reproductions of 20th-century artworks] they came after people with official work units, saying it was a political issue. I kept waiting for them to come to me, but they never did. It got everyone around me scared, because this was definitely a problem. They came to other people but not to me. I didn’t know what the problem was. It has an effect. You start thinking about it, but you can’t go find “him,” because there is no him.
ZZ: There is no him. It’s not a person or a thing.
I ask him if he was still in the zone, and he says, “I think I didn’t really want anything more from this exhibition or these artworks. It was just something I wanted to stand for. It seems that when you have the right to speak, you can say what you want to say.”
“Right,” I reply.
AW: There is a certain amount of space here. Basically, it is a method that you are familiar with, but the other side is certainly not. With them being so arbitrary about it, they are clearly out of options. The advantage is clear. The predicament reveals the source of the problem.
ZZ: It’s just that I hadn’t held out a lot of hope. It’s fine, though, because what can I do? If we wanted to do something, we would go through a lot. If we didn’t, we’d be just fine.
AW: What’s your personality? What’s your sign?
ZZ: Cancer. I’m a homebody.
AW: What month is Cancer?
ZZ: June to July.
AW: What’s your zodiac animal?
ZZ: Year of the dog.
AW: And your blood type?
ZZ: Type O.
AW: Type O. I don’t know what Cancers are known for.
ZZ: We stay home.
AW: People who can stay put.
ZZ: Right, we stay put. If someone doesn’t come looking for me, I won’t go looking for them.
AW: What if they do?
ZZ: Then there’s trouble. I’ll hold a grudge.
AW: Do you tell people to steer clear of you?
ZZ: Sometimes. I’ll tell them if they don’t know.
AW: This kind of person likes to sit around at home, right?
That year, he just stuck around the house, stuck around the village. The village had come to a standstill. Then he was brought to the police station. It seemed like they were doing something wrong at the police station, but not much really happened. They just held him for a few weeks. I think it was a good thing.
Zhao Zhao felt that they were out of order, that they didn’t follow a process, and he was right. They say it’s a security case, and so it is. I think it’s somewhat like the Yang Jia case. He says killing is wrong, but there wasn’t any process. It’s just like saying that fighting is wrong. There’s no process. It’s just a simple matter of violence. When you talk to them about process they respond about results, and neither side gets through to the other. They’re not people; they’re a system. That’s how it feels.
For this exhibition in Los Angeles [Omnipresent at Roberts & Tilton in Culver City, through February 28, 2015] he painted a series of paintings. I think they’re of the sky.
AW: You painted some tree forks before, right?
ZZ: Tree branches.
AW: What’s the difference between a branch and a fork?
ZZ: They were tree branches.
AW: Is this another spot-the-difference?
ZZ: Yes. I sat at home painting the sky under the smog.
This is a bit like the ancient painters. They always painted wind, rain and snow, rarely normal weather. Then there is the artwork made from the cut Buddha statues. Your works seem to be becoming increasingly direct and simple. There’s this feeling that they are becoming anti-artworks. Doesn’t this go against the teaching at China’s art academies? I’ve noticed at the branded exhibitions of today, people like to have a kind of academy tone in their works.
Culture needs a platform, a context. In recent years, Zhao Zhao has been the subject of much attention. I asked him about his views on the current state of photography and the art scene in China. It is quite active.
I also ask how he would compare with others in his generation.
“I think you should instead compare me with the New Generation or the artists of the 1980s. I’m really not familiar with the working methods or ideas of my own peers, because, as you know, throughout the process of learning oil painting at the academy, and in my own work experience, my interactions have mostly been with more mature artists. I’ve met them all. I haven’t had much interaction with young artists, even now.”
He continues, “Recently, there has been more media attention, articles in art magazines. I created a work this year that elicited quite a bit of discussion. First, I sent out key words on Weibo (a Chinese microblog site): Slap, Affair, Leather Shoes, and Home. It got retweeted a lot, and ended up on the front page, with lots of clicks and commentary. Sina News had picked up on it. If it hadn’t been retweeted around, then these four key terms wouldn’t have amounted to much, but after it attracted so much attention, I decided that it could be used as the title or topic of an artwork. But as I created the performance work, it ended up not having much to do with this whole thing. It went in a different direction.
“For ‘Slap,’ I found a volunteer on the internet. The volunteer agreed to let me slap him on both sides of the face with my right hand. I set a time and a place, and he was there waiting for me. Altogether, four people agreed over the Internet to do this. Among them, I chose someone from Hubei Province. I didn’t know him and we didn’t speak. I’m guessing that he found out about this from Fu Xiaodong’s online call for volunteers. He agreed. We carried out the slapping on October 27, 2013. It was an event, taking place in an agreed place and time, where I came to slap him twice.
“Then I said I wanted to do the affair artwork. The process for ‘Affair’ was that I was looking for a volunteer who would let me use a knife to stab him in the back with my right hand. We sent word out online, and 12 people volunteered. That’s how it went. It was quite simple.
“This went on until September of 2014. Sun Yuan came to me and said he wanted to do it. ‘I’ll be your volunteer. Can I sign up?’ I said that he could volunteer, but he’d have to sign up and then I would think about it. So now we had 13 people and I decided to meet with them. I met with seven of the volunteers, but none of them fit.”
AW: Why not? Was their skin too slippery?
ZZ: No. They had too many questions.
AW: That’s not very feasible.
AW: What did they ask about the most?
ZZ: They would ask how long the knife was, and how deep I would stab them.
AW: Had you thought that through? Did you say how long it was?
ZZ: I hadn’t. I actually didn’t know what knife I was going to use. I hadn’t chosen it yet.
AW: So you did some quick thinking and settled on a pencil sharpener?
ZZ: I didn’t have a knife. I thought I could find someone who would agree without any questions.
AW: But they all asked?
ZZ: They basically all asked except for Sun Yuan. Only Sun Yuan said, “Just tell me when.” I also thought he had the right body.
AW: A good body for stabbing. What kind of knife did you use?
ZZ: I used a Yingjisha dagger.
AW: Where did you get it?
ZZ: I bought it at a farmer’s market.
AW: Was it a new knife, or an old one?
ZZ: An old knife.
AW: Good steel?
ZZ: Not bad.
AW: Was it sharp?
ZZ: Yes. It has a single edge that tapers off to a point in a smooth line.
AW: Did you stab him?
AW: Was it satisfying?
ZZ: It was okay. I did it. After I stabbed him, I wanted to use the knife for “Leather Shoes.” For this work, I would take the knife I used to stab Sun Yuan, and give it to a volunteer. The volunteer would have to tell me a reason to give him the knife. If I thought the reason was good, I would give it to him.
AW: Did anyone want the knife?
ZZ: A lot of people have asked for it so far, but none of the reasons have been any good. A lot of them wanted to stab themselves, to hurt themselves. Some wanted to stab me. How could I agree to that? Then, for “Home,” I sought out a volunteer, a home I could be a guest in.
AW: Have you done “Home” yet?
ZZ: I have. I found a home. I was looking for a home with kids and with old people, and I wanted to see how long I could stay there before they kicked me out.
AW: How long did you stay? Was it 16 hours?
ZZ: I stayed for 15 hours.
AW: I remember it as 16 hours. That’s what the report said.
ZZ: It was 15 hours.
AW: Did they call the police?
ZZ: They didn’t call the police. They just said, “If you don’t leave, we’ll have to call the police. We don’t want our kid to see you again when he gets up at six in the morning.”
AW: Okay. Did you talk with them?
ZZ: I did.
AW: What did you say?
ZZ: I said, “Didn’t we agree that I would leave after breakfast?” They said if I kept this up, they would call the cops.
AW: They couldn’t take it anymore?
ZZ: They couldn’t go to sleep.
AW: Because you were just sitting there.
ZZ: I was on the couch.
AW: Did you pace around?
ZZ: No, I just sat there.
AW: Did you read?
ZZ: I didn’t read. I’d look at my phone sometimes, but I didn’t make a sound.
AW: How many people in the family?
ZZ: There were six of them.
AW: Did they start talking about it?
ZZ: They all went back to their rooms and started talking about it at midnight. Of course they did.
AW: Who served as their representative?
ZZ: It was the son, a guy in his 30s. Around 11 or 12, he started saying things like “Aren’t you tired?”
AW: How did you end up there?
ZZ: I just went up and knocked on the door.
AW: Weren’t you introduced to them?
ZZ: I was.
AW: This guy who introduced you, what did he say?
ZZ: He said I was an artist, and that I wanted to learn about a normal family, about family life. They thought I was doing some kind of artistic survey, looking for material for something.
AW: It wasn’t like that, though. You went there and didn’t speak.
ZZ: Right. They invited me for lunch, then dinner, and then they watched the nightly news. At nine, they said their child was going to bed. They meant it was about time to leave.
AW: But did you tell them you wanted to stay until the next day?
ZZ: I never said I wanted to stay until the next day. At 11, they said, “Are you in some kind of trouble? Don’t you have somewhere to stay? Do you need money or some other kind of help?” I said I wasn’t in trouble, I just wanted to stay a little longer. They asked when I was planning on leaving, because their child went to bed at nine, and gets up at about six or seven every morning. I said I would leave after breakfast. They gave up and said I could stay the night, and even brought out a blanket to use on the couch. They all went to bed at midnight, and then, a little after two, the son came out and sat down next to me. He said, “We didn’t know you before, and we don’t want to know you after this. I don’t want the kid to see you when he gets up in the morning. You say you want to stay for breakfast, but if you insist, I’m going to call the police.” I said okay and left.
AW: Could you find a taxi at that hour?
ZZ: I did.
AW: Were there a lot of taxis? Did you have to wait?
ZZ: I had to walk out to the corner. There was a hospital right by their house.
AW: Where did you go?
ZZ: I got in a taxi and went back to Caochangdi. When I do things, I like to stretch them out a bit. AW: Is this something you were consciously aware of? Did you think about exhibiting in galleries or working in these circles? There are a lot of limitations in this area.
ZZ: At first, I always wanted to make music. I always thought I could find some way outside of this system.
AW: Why don’t you?
ZZ: That takes time.
AW: How old are you now?
AW: Last year, you were busy with your own stuff, and I basically left you alone, except for the exhibition at the Ullens Center, when I asked you to help me take my artworks back.3 What did you think about that at the time?
ZZ: I was thinking about taking your artworks back. AW: I think you’ve done that twice before, so you have some experience there.
ZZ: Right. I’ve removed your works from two exhibitions. When you do that, you’re going to piss some people off, so you have to keep your distance. There are only so many people in the art scene. Do you know them all? It’s very complicated now, with all these different interests tied together.
AW: It’s quite interesting, don’t you think? This turned into a really big deal. Cui Cancan showed it to me on her phone, because my phone doesn’t have it. She said, “Take a look at this.” I saw the exhibition didn’t list me, so I said I wanted my artworks back.
ZZ: It’s even more complicated now. There are factions.
AW: Is this faction thing a big deal?
ZZ: Let’s look at a recent event as an example. A month ago, Xingwei called me, but I didn’t pick up. He sent a message saying he wanted to do an exhibition called “The Path of Life, “ and basically invited me to join. I told him I couldn’t.
ZZ: I have no need to get involved in this stuff. He spent a lot of money to collect stuff from these artists. If I took part in the exhibition, he would collect my work. He couldn’t reach me by phone, so he called Haitao. He asked why I didn’t answer his calls, and I said I don’t really understand what this guy is up to, so there was no need to take his call. He asked if I was going to participate, and I asked why I should. He said he could loan some of my works from the gallery, but not sell them. I said that wouldn’t work either. He asked what he was supposed to tell him. I said to say whatever he wanted. He called him or sent him a message saying I wasn’t going to take part, that it wasn’t the right fit. Xingwei responded with “got it,” and went on to do his exhibition. This was something recent. I don’t know if you feel it, but it’s like a group of people are trying to pull you into their clique, and I don’t know what they’re thinking. I used to think it was nice being an artist. You could just do your own thing. But now there are these different forces, and it’s all getting too complicated. Shanghai’s got this “port culture,” with its own factions, and in Beijing, people group together by who they like. They form into factions, and then the whole game of profits and interests emerges. It’s really complicated, really dirty.
Zhao Zhao is right. This isn’t something normal people do. But I can’t force it on them. Under this kind of pressure, you see, I have to do this. I don’t hang out with these people, and they don’t care. What does it matter? I’m not a part of this, but I have to take my own stance. I can’t say that other people don’t care. It’s not about that. This system has distorted the condition of the artist. This is a form of self-examination. People have to care. They can’t just watch their houses get demolished and not care.
Another thing has also changed now: Before, people would say that this guy’s artwork is too politicized, but now there’s been a change. It’s not about standing together to support some cause. There’s always a right and wrong. Our people can’t always talk about Yin and Yang while ignoring right and wrong. This is an evil thought process. It’s about how to get by the best. In China’s current state of eating itself from the inside and crawling off to the outside, they go through the motions on some key issues, but that’s not right. If they want to clearly say that we have some problem, that’s fine. But when they say that old Ai wants to disrupt the exhibition opening, that’s poisoning the well. It’s okay if you don’t want to put me in the exhibition.
Zhao Zhao has used his own methods to prove the possibility of another form of existence, one not necessarily inside our secular framework. He was talking about this whole issue of people forming into factions, and if that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t see people acting like this. I told those artists before that it makes them look like they’re all out of tricks, getting involved in all these shady connections. History is just a long series of fragments. Not everything gets written down in the archives. If, as an artist, you can’t maintain your independence, you’re not going to last, and you shouldn’t bother trying.
Today, Zhao Zhao is in a good state of mind. He still goes out looking for trouble where there is none. He still gets bored. He still wants me to write something. Zhao Zhao has attitude, and this attitude of his, neither too hot nor too cold, is going to take him far.
1 “Template” was a structure made of old wooden doors from demolished houses for Kassel documenta 2007. The structure collapsed in a storm.
2 In June 2008, Yang Jia carried a knife, a hammer, a gas mask, pepper spray, gloves, and Molotov cocktails to the Zhabei Public Security Branch Bureau and killed six police officers, injuring another police officer and a guard. He was arrested on the scene, and was subsequently charged with intentional homicide.
3 Ai Weiwei withdrew from a major exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art after his name was removed from press materials, reportedly under pressure from the Chinese government.