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Ai Weiwei: "I'm an artist, not a priest"


A panel discussion between artists Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei seemed to highlight Ai’s, um, theatrical side, according to the Daily Beast. While Bruguera was going about her business speaking about art and politics, Ai preferred to talk about selfies and evade serious questions, about for example the art world was in a furore over a photograph in which he posed as a drowned Turkish refugee toddler last year. Read Sarah Shears’ report in partial below, in full via the Daily Beast here.

Bruguera asked Ai where he now considers himself in the “political situation.” He said he has no clear party, since “I consider myself an individual,” which seemed an exceptionally American answer.

About his 1995 photographic and performance piece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, in which he did just that, destroying the 2,000-year-old cultural artifact, one of many he had painted over, Ai said that while many people treated it as a serious statement it was “more or less of a joke.”

Brugera then asked his thoughts on the artist Maximo Caminero, who destroyed another of Ai’s own painted vases in the same manner while it was on display at an exhibition of the Chinese artist’s work at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. Ai said that Caminero had a “right to state his mind and do that gesture, but have to take responsibility for that gesture,” adding that “normally, you do that to your own property.”

Moving on to his photographic series, Study of Perspective, where he artistically flipped the bird to famous monuments throughout the world, including Tiananmen Square and the White House, Ai said it was about “freedom of speech,” and that there was “no excuse to not give out your voice.”

That voice, Ai implied, was uncompromised, since he “never negotiates with art or art world” and that “this is what I do—take it or don’t have me.” He added that “not everyone is as lucky.”

Bruguera asked about the tension between Ai’s role as an activist artist and his immense financial success, and he called himself “a so-called political artist.” Still, he said, “you play the game,” and argued that if as an artist he had been politically active yet financially poor, that would show that his political activism wasn’t successful.

Bruguera kept pressing as Ai shifted in his chair and seemed to become a little frazzled, asking about his highly controversial photograph recreating the grimly iconic image of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach.

Ai, who took the shot while spending the beginning of this year helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, said of its critics: “I don’t react to them. They react to me.”

He went on: “I’m an artist, not a priest. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, I’m raising questions,” to which the audience flooded him with applause. He responded to that by declaring “I don’t give a damn shit about it,” which was met him with more applause which he obliged with more swearing, saying “take it or fuck it.”

Bruguera, though, pressed the question, replying that “sometimes we have to fuck the artist too,” and Ai began almost shouting, pressing her to name the name the exact number of Syrian refugees who have died while trying to cross over to Europe. She did not, and he spat out that she was only a “partially political artist.”

Bruguera, showing grace and dignity as Ai escalated the exchange, then asked his thoughts on how to help improve conditions for the oppressed, and specifically what an artist can do to improve the Syrian refugee situation. He declared that “art can teach us to be a real person.”

Bruguera asked if such art could create a societal shift. Ai replied that “the problem will never be solved and always be there. We use our time to solve our own problems.”

The audience question and answer session that followed brought out an even more theatrical side of Ai. He dismissed some questions with Zen master-type non-sequitur replies and rerouted others as his hearing, the microphones, and his previously demonstrated fluency with the English language all seemed to selectively fail him. He spoke again about his dislike for being labelled a political artist, “because every artist and all art is political.”

*Image of Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei via Brooklyn Museum and courtesy Ellen Qbertplaya