When it was announced that Ai Weiwei was coming to St Andrews to celebrate the launch of the new Chinese Studies programme, there was no question that we were all going to see him. One of, if not the, most influential artists alive today, Ai Weiwei is known for his activism which has forced him into exile from his native China for the past 12 years. In person, Ai is soft spoken, and he carefully considered each question before responding. That didn’t stop him holding the attention of the room, though. Topics ranged from the light (he was most disappointed by the lack of a decent Chinese restaurant in town) to the deeply controversial.
When he accidentally swore and asked if this was acceptable, the response was along the lines of ‘this is a university, you can say whatever you like’ but Ai disagreed. He told an anecdote about an American professor fired over a misunderstanding around his use of the Chinese filler word 那个 (ne ga), and then dropped the N-slur to illustrate his point. A hush descended on the room and afterwards there was much debate over this definitive line in the sand that had just been crossed. He drew comparisons to the cultural revolution, infamously spearheaded by ideologically driven university students. Ai argued that this culture is in fact ‘not progressive’. Although it undeniably provoked thought, I am not sure how far these exploits convinced his audience of the argument for absolute free speech.
His later points, however, were very well received. Ai is a naturally funny man who regularly got laughs out of the crowd in his responses to audience questions and unique tangents or exaggerations (something he blames on being an artist). Ai spoke passionately about his father, the great poet Ai Qing, and his exile. There were points of cultural comparison which he said, “you can never understand”, like the chilling moment he described his relationship with his father as more like that of a “comrade” or his first-hand depiction of Chinese communism’s removal of individual agency, which baffles Western observers.
Ai did not avoid bold statements. He openly rejected state-sponsored cultural exchange as a form of diplomacy not culture. He compared the CCP’s position on art to that of Adolf Hitler, an appreciation for the ‘art’ that they like while rejecting ‘degenerate art’ – the art that offends the existing elites. He spoke about the differences between rural and urban China, elite and peasant culture, Confucian and Daoist understandings of death, and (quite frequently, actually) his father’s job cleaning public toilets. We certainly left the Booth Lecture Theatre with plenty to talk about, and I suspect that was precisely Ai Weiwei’s goal.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons