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12 Things We Learned from Ai Weiwei’s Return to Brooklyn

The prolific Chinese artist sat down with Cuban artivist Tania Bruguera for a conversation at the Brooklyn Museum.

by Annie Armstrong
Nov 2 2016, 1:30pm

Photo courtesy of Ellen Qbertplaya

This past weekend at The Brooklyn Museum, artist Ai Weiwei, who needs no introduction, sat down with prolific Cuban artist (and presidential hopeful) Tania Bruguera, to discuss politics, art, and exile. In the 1980s, Weiwei “spent ten years in New York City, mostly mad,” and this was his first return to Brooklyn since his passport was seized in 2012. Bruguera, who splits her time between New York and her native Havana, was recently named the resident artist at New York City’s Department of Immigrant Affairs. The two dissident artists shared a grin when Bruguera opened the discussion: “I’m sure our interrogators don’t want us to be exchanging notes, but here we are.” This is what we learned from their conversation:

Social media activism is stronger than we think.

It’s often overlooked in America as a form of protest, but social media activism is pertinent to both Cuba and China, where censorship is openly enforced. “When there’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom,” said Weiwei. “Since I learned to type, I don’t want to sleep anymore.” WeiWei’s Twitter account has over 338K followers, and he posts semi-daily.

Fear is inherited.

“We have so many generations of people being afraid, so this fear starts in the house,” Bruguera explained. “It happens when your mother tells you not to do something to protect you.”

Western media can—and will—warp your expression.

When Weiwei was addressed by Bruguera as an “avant-garde artist,” he retorted: “Avant-garde is a name given to my art by Western media.”

Censorship is precise, diligent, and vicious.

Bruguera outlined the process that the Cuban government used to silence her. These tactics range from artistic isolation, thought control, to even spreading rumors that she was a mercenary of the CIA. “They use a lot of resources. I had four interrogators. Do they have nothing else to do? They spend so much money on it. In Cuba, there is a list of all the ‘official’ artists. If you say something wrong, then you’re not on the list. Then, nobody here [in the US] will see those artists work when they go to Cuba.”

Art is “a gesture” more than an object.

Or at least, that’s part of both Weiwei and Bruguera’s definition of art. When Weiwei notoriously dropped a Han dynasty urn in 1995, the image remained unpublished for over ten years. He explains, “It took me, as a serious person, a long time to make that a joke.”

Change is forecasted by the temperature.

Bruguera and Weiwei went back and forth with each other, discussing whether change has to come from the top down, or from the bottom-up. Finally, Weiwei concluded that trying to track how change comes about is “like talking about when spring will come. It comes from the frozen river, or when the ice starts to melt, or the tip of the tree becoming green. But it comes from the temperature. It’s when you decide to leave the darkness of your house and say, ‘Oh, it’s such a nice day.’”

To shift the future, you have to understand that the future is now.

Bruguera constantly insisted that unrest is essential to forward progression. “The future of Cuba is now,” she said. “That’s how you shift the future.” Weiwei agreed, adding, “Every day you have to ask yourself the same question, which is, ‘Can we really tolerate this kind of society?’ There’s no excuse to not give out your voice under any circumstance.”

Don’t underestimate the power of giving yourself flowers.

During his house arrest, Weiwei’s home had “dozens” of surveillance cameras placed in and around the premises. As his form of protest, he placed a new bouquet of flowers in the basket of his bicycle for 600 days until he regained his right to travel. “There was no reason for them to stop this action, because there was no clear threat.” Weiwei explained. “They said Weiwei, can you not do it? And I said that’s not possible. I just put my fresh flowers there... Negotiation is like this. It can be as small as these flowers.”  

There is no right or wrong way to interpret art.

Weiwei’s most recent project, a photo of himself posing as the infamous drowned Syrian refugee, has received perhaps more backlash than it has praise. Bruguera asked Weiwei to comment, to which he responded, “I’m an artist, not a priest. My art is not meant to be right or wrong. Take it or fuck it.”

Photo courtesy of Ellen Qbertplaya

If you want to make a statement, take a shower.

During the question and answer portion of the discussion, an art student asked what actions she could take to make a political statement. Weiwei responded quickly, “Take a shower. Open the window. Make sure you can cook today.” Draw from that what you will.

Art is always tied to politics.

“All art must be political or else it isn’t art. I don’t call myself a political artist because I think it’s an insult. Aesthetics always relate to moral, and always relate to our philosophy,” said Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei would rather be taking selfies.

Before the microphone was passed back to the audience for question and answer, Weiwei said, “If we get this over with, we can all go outside and I’ll take selfies with all of you.”

For the next month, four simultaneous exhibits of Weiwei’s work are happening in New York City at Deitch Projects, Lisson Gallery, and two at Mary Boone Gallery.

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