After a four-year travel ban, and with four gallery exhibitions opening in Manhattan later this week, Ai Weiwei has returned to New York, the city he called home in the 1980s. On Friday night, a colleague spotted him in the East Village, and on Saturday afternoon, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a conversation between the infamous Chinese artist and another dependable troublemaker, the Cuban artist-activist Tania Bruguera. Two artists who have been censored, arrested, and detained in their respective countries, now swapping notes? Tickets of course sold out fast.
Bruguera, who recently announced that she will run for the Cuban presidency in 2018, was a great match for Ai. Her questions attempted to draw parallels between the conditions of political art in Cuba and China, asking Ai about his work with a spirit of curiosity and camaraderie, and it was clear from the start that this would not be a tame discussion about process and aesthetics. As always, Bruguera did not shy away from controversial topics.
She began the discussion with the observation that, in Cuba, many artists are leaving behind political critique in order to appeal to the international art market, and Ai talked about his own struggle as a young artist to find an audience for his work. He had been a part of one of the first groups of dissident contemporary artists in China, but there was no platform and certainly no market for the group there, and so he moved to Brooklyn in the 1980s, settling in Williamsburg. “The only people interested in the work were foreigners,” he said plainly.
Bruguera, tracing this lack of a “platform” to a general fear caused by strict censorship, asked Ai if censorship began in the home in China as it does in Cuba. “Education teaches you that it is not possible to question,” Ai responded. When you question, you are putting your entire family at risk, he continued. Your father might lose his job, and you might even get sent to a mental institution because “there must be something wrong with you.” He explained that in China, the ideal of a “harmonious” society comes at the cost of freedom.
Flipping through images of Ai’s work on a screen behind them, Bruguera started to get more personal: she addressed rumors surrounding Ai’s recent projects, inquired about his political views, and asked his thoughts on art’s power to enact change. While these questions were meant to give Ai the opportunity to elucidate his intentions as an artist and an activist, he often skirted around the issues and reverted to crowd-pleasing one-liners such as: “When there’s no freedom of speech, there is no freedom,” “I have no political party; I consider myself an individual,” and “Let them react to me, I don’t react to them.”
This last statement was in response to Bruguera’s questions about Ai’s re-creation of the widely circulated image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who washed up on the shore of Turkey last year. “The substitution of a body is an ethical dilemma,” Bruguera said. “How do you react to the criticism that this photo has received?” This topic apparently struck a nerve in Ai, who became more and more curt as the conversation went on. “I am an artist. I am not a priest,” he said. “If I cared like everybody else cared, I wouldn’t be an artist.”
Bruguera tried to rephrase the question, asking Ai to consider what it means for an artist to use his own body as a stand-in for the body of a child refugee. Instead of allowing Bruguera to speak, Ai interrupted her and asked, “How many people have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year?”
“Well—I mean, thousands, maybe going on tens of thousands? I’m not—” Bruguera hesitated.
“How many? Tell me the exact number,” Ai interrupted again.
Bruguera defended herself, “That is not something that I am researching specifically. My work mostly concerns Cuba—”
“Exactly,” Ai retorted. “You don’t know the number. Because you are not a full political artist. You are only a Cuban political artist.”
Bruguera, unfazed, shifted topics. She read her next question: “Do you think art can find solutions that politicians and government cannot?” Ai responded bluntly again, “No. The problem will always be there, but we won’t always be there.”
Earlier in the conversation, Bruguera had asked Ai to address the rumors surrounding Maximo Caminero, the artist who smashed a vase in Ai’s exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2014. Ai admitted that he respects Caminero’s freedom of expression, but, jokingly, he said, “Usually when you do something like this, you use your own property.” He also stated that “All art is political” and “Every act we take, we have to bear responsibility.”
“Every act we take, we have to bear responsibility”—an intriguing response from an artist who had just given a petulant nonresponse to Bruguera’s questions about the refugee photograph.
After the conversation, audience members lined up on either side of the auditorium to ask Ai and Bruguera questions, most of which concerned the intricacies of Ai’s work and process. They asked about his daily routine, his opinion on Russia, and his thoughts on the use of humor in political art. Ai cut many of these questions off too. At one point he said, “If we get this over with, we can all go outside and I’ll take selfies with all of you.” No one revisited the refugee photo, and no one mentioned Ai’s disrespectful way of speaking to Bruguera.
I asked the final question. “Ai, when asked about the person who smashed your vase, you said that we have to take responsibility for our actions,” I said. “I am wondering how this statement applies to the fact that you just told Tania that she was not a ‘full political artist’ because she did not know an exact number. How is this bearing responsibility for the photograph you took of yourself as a drowned child refugee?”
Ai sat back in his seat and smiled. He turned to Bruguera. “Would you like to respond?” he asked. Bruguera, confessing that the “good student” in her “froze up and tried to think of the number,” segued into a quick summary of her work.
And then Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak, who had begun the event with “an Instagram moment,” asking the crowd to shout, “Weiwei” and “Tania,” returned to the podium and cheerfully reminded the audience that the Brooklyn Museum is a place for “incredible conversations like the one we’ve seen today.”