– Sorry, the driver does not know Ai Weiwei.
– But he has an address…
– Yes, but he does not know the address.
My morning started like a dream. I had all the information and yet I was missing something crucial. Although Ai Weiwei is an artist known to us all and extremely active on social media, his name ‘does not exist’ in China; coincidentally, his address is also completely unknown.
I got there eventually. I interviewed Ai Weiwei in his house, a patio complex enclosed behind a gate with one label: FAKE. It is a beautiful house. Languid cats lolled about.
Ai Weiwei was concentrating on a dream, too. Also missing something crucial…
He films me with his i-phone as I ask to put my camera on and we start.
Paperhouses: How do you experience architecture? Are there universal symbols? What did it mean for you to participate in Ruta del Peregrino, a religious route?
Ai Weiwei: I think all architecture has a religious aspect even when it is not religious. The religious aspect is always there in a man-made object because Man always reflects upon himself in relation to the World, Society, Nature or God. This relation can be directed to God like temples, churches or religious acts but even the non-religious acts can still bear pain or hope, joy or fear. Those emotions are very philosophical questions embedded in being and existence, and that have always been shared by religion. Architects just recognize the qualities that bare some kind of consciousness…
PH: So here, this is your house, there is a level of symbolism and consciousness in design…
AWW: I think so. When there is light coming in, on your forehead right now, when there is shadow, you cover part of the light, and when there is air and sun… no architecture practice can be isolated, it is not possible, it does not exist, although it often does exist in the architect’s mind.
PH: That is right…
AWW: Because we have many architects that don’t think they are part of a religious practice but they think they play God.
PH: “Dissident for the digital age.” How did The Internet and social media influence your practice of art?
AWW: Art is about expression and communication. An act itself is not only how we express ourselves, but then through that act of communication we connect to who we are, not just to other people. So obviously “Internet” is a medium which can have a strong frequency and density for the self to react and respond or to be involved with the so called reality. For me personally, I think it often feels as one, the information itself and your reaction. It also is very often formless which I think is the highest stage – you are in there, you are part of it and only maybe later some form will come out or not come out… but then again you have a sense of being part of it and a sense of time. You always see every mark you leave and that carries a very strong sense of time.
PH: This question of time is actually quite pertinent because a lot about this (I point at my iPhone) is the instant; whereas a lot about art is autobiographical, retrospective. How do you calibrate the issue of time: memory versus the picture of what is happening and the video of something instant?
AWW: It is a problem, a question and a struggle. What is YOU, and from WHEN can you recognize yourself? In what sense do I know myself in the next second or in the previous second and what is there in between? A connection between past and future… How do you define all these things?
Internet is probably mostly a dream condition for the self. Before it was much easier: time was solid. Now space is virtual, it is not really solid. What’s happened is that you hear it but at the same time it is happening in different locations so the image of where you are is destroyed, the understanding of location is not a very specific point. The understanding of time changed because we receive and understand the world so differently. On the other hand, time is a conscious feeling in your mind. So how can we define that?
PH: But your mind always refers to the past…
AWW: Well, the issue is that we care about the past only because we want to catch the next ball… we say, if it happens this way, then it must happen this way the next time. That is not necessary.
PH: Also related to time, what is real and what is not real? Would memory be a fake and the instant be reality? Or is there another form of defining reality?
I had a dream last night…don’t know why. In my dream there is another reality where the human is divided as past and future, and of course a middle connection by children and elderly people, who don’t really belong to the past or the future. In the past we meet those people who worry and who have to accumulate to have a sense of existence or success, people who like memories and who like to try to predict or to tell the fortune… In the future there is no sense or time or success, there is just a lot of fragments and people who pretend they know how to exist. They have many models like Marilyn Monroe or Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King, Jr. They just pretend and they pretend they have a lot of meetings. Information has not much use to them.
My dream was quite long…
So the past and the future are also related to hell and heaven. The future is more like heaven. Heaven is always like summertime, it’s bright and there is no sense of time passing. Hell can be wet or warm or sticky, it is full of anxieties.
PH: So it is not so much about time, past or future, as it is about your sense of self. Being real is how you look at yourself, how societies look at themselves.
AWW: Yes, I think so. The sense of real is part of self-examination. It comes to the core, the foundation, without judgment.
And also the cats, butterflies and the little grass in the parks they all carried some message in my dream. They are like mailmen. Very strange…
(A white cat jumps on the table, sits right between us)
This cat always comes here when I have an interview.
PH: You have lots of cats…
AWW: Yes, but this one is always here, I don’t know why. This one never misses an interview.
PH: Going back to the Internet as a medium and to architecture. The Paperhouses’ project is about architecture in open source. What do you think is the potential of open source in architecture?
AWW: I dreamt a long time ago that in the future there are no architects; just people who contribute and share. The understanding of how to build should be shared, it is common property. In food for example, everybody cooks. The architect either because of regulation or because of resources became like a creator but in the future it will not be that way.
Today everybody can make a movie with a phone; before to have a camera was a luxury. So the same way in the future the architect will disappear. People will have ideas and find ideas and they’ll put them into practice.
Unless you are building for the army, congress, a museum…
PH: Your art often reflects on current issues. Do you think Chinese society is receptive to it or do you think others may be more?
AWW: I think the Human is one. What is Chinese society is part of human condition. One fifth of the world’s population is Chinese. On the other hand, my name cannot even appear in the Internet here. It is such an ironic thing that it is so widespread and yet my name cannot appear on this net. More interestingly, in the West I make more and more frequent appearances!
The west and the east are just an illusion. It is a village, one part and the other of the same village becoming more and more inseparable. At the same time what I say here is not heard here, it’s heard in the west… Society here designed a safety code, what they consider to be a moral standard or something that keeps you from harm. But today is very difficult to completely segregate and block…
PH: I find that very often your work is actually very patriotic – it reflects upon what happened in the earthquake or about Chinese symbols. There is a lot about Chinese tradition and contemporary matters.
AWW: I happened to be here. I am Chinese and speak the Chinese language. It is not necessary, it is just a condition.
China also does not have to be like today. Change can happen.
I have to respond to what happens here because that is my connection to the world. I also respond to what happens in the West but I am less familiar with those issues, I have less emotional attachment to them. People belong to the past and they have all these kinds of sentiment related to people they know or the language they speak. Language very much frames the way we think and act.
PH: What are your biggest sources of inspiration in terms of books or people or art?
AWW: I don’t have a source of inspiration. If I take the wrong pills like last night, I have a dream. Humans are conditioned by their body; I don’t really believe in inspiration, I believe in reaction.
We are like a box that keeps moving, like those animals that have a lot of legs – how do you call them? Even with so many legs they don’t have enough – they just move, you change their direction and they keep moving and then one day it is the end of life.
Humans, we think we are so smart, so intelligent, but maybe we are very much like the caterpillar…
The box of the body is sophisticated and very beautiful. No architect can engender something like that. Even moving in one direction, they can’t, not possible.
PH: Finally because you refer to yourself as an architect and an artist, do you think you are more of one or the other? Are the two things part of the same?
AWW: It is just part of the same – you imagine something and you try to make it.
Art is when you cannot fully explain what you made, either purposely or not; non-art objects have a clear definition of the purpose and the usage but even that can be turned into art as a ready-made. As soon as it serves another function the original design is destroyed.
PH: Do you think when something is made it belongs to public domain and is up there to be used or do you believe that once something is made it should always be respected and preserved per the artist’s intention?
AWW: Both qualities struggle in an object. Partially it does not matter what the maker wants it to be because it will be used anyway but some artists struggle not to let anybody misuse their work.
PH: How do you deal with it?
AWW: I often think what I do is kind of stupid…
It is beyond my control, I can only control a part of it… I think it is OK. It is a play. Nothing is ever complete, it has to be approved or received by others.
PH: And if it is, that is ok…
AWW: Of course. You accept it.
More on Ai Weiwei during the week.