Have you ever experienced racism in China?

"Even my girlfriend and my son told me not to eat at the Chinese in London": Ai Weiwei on the fear of the coronavirus and democratized art

He is known as one of the most political artists in the world. But now he teamed up with the German hardware store Hornbach for an advertising campaign. Why is Ai Weiwei doing this?

Ai Weiwei, you have just come from London, you were in Rome last week and previously in Utah. Now we are here in Berlin. Aren't you afraid of the coronavirus?

Ai Weiwei: I am not restricted in my behavior and cannot fully understand the excitement. The coronavirus makes everyone nervous, especially the Chinese, and so far it has claimed as many lives as normal flu. In any case, I don't wear a face mask on my travels, but of course I would see a doctor if I had symptoms.

Do you think the reactions are scare tactics?

Of course, we should be careful and not just travel where there are many infected people. But the Chinese government's response shows once again what the country is capable of. The megacity of Wuhan was sealed off with military force. It has just been announced that any Chinese who disseminate information about the coronavirus via the Internet faces up to seven years in prison.

In some European cities, people avoid Chinese restaurants for fear of becoming infected. The Chinese, on the other hand, complain that they are marginalized and hostile. Is the virus being used as an excuse to act out resentment?

These are normal reactions. Even my girlfriend and son told me not to eat at the Chinese in London. The fear is rampant, you can't blame anyone for acting irrationally. But that it is now a disease that fuels resentment towards the Chinese is absurd. There are things from China that are much more dangerous to the West than this virus.

Ai Weiwei

Artist, human rights activist, dissident

Ai Weiwei (* 1957) is known not only as a concept artist, film director and sculptor, but also as a vehement defender of human rights, which has a lot to do with his own history. Due to the exile of his father, the poet and regime critic Ai Qing, he grew up temporarily in Manchuria. In 2011, he was arrested for criticizing the Chinese government. He has been running a studio in Berlin since 2015, but has recently moved to Cambridge.


China is a country that fundamentally disregards human rights. Letting your thoughts run free is inadmissible, no miracle stifles any kind of imagination and creativity. Or can you name an invention from China from the last hundred years that has brought mankind forward? Without the developments in the West, the Chinese would still live in very primitive conditions. Innovations are either bought or copied, and the country is very successful in this. A young generation of people is growing up in China, whose influence on the global economy is growing steadily, but whose worldview and socialization are difficult to reconcile with the West. I see this as a future threat.

In 2015 you moved to Germany, but were not happy in Berlin. The Chinese, like the Germans, are obedient to authority, you said. Isn't that a bit generalizing?

I moved from Berlin because in this society people are encouraged to adopt a different attitude than I would like to adopt. Here one always thinks in the same rigid way. People strictly adhere to the rules, which makes them appear strong, but it is a sign of weakness.

As you said yourself, your experiences are based mainly on conversations with taxi drivers.

Well it was a very long taxi ride. It took me four years to realize that I couldn't function in Berlin, and I only got out now. In a society in which taxi drivers feel so uncomfortable and do not integrate, some things are not quite right.

The legacy of the National Socialists can still be felt in Germany, you said recently on the BBC, people just dress differently today. Do you experience England, where you live today, differently?

So far I have not experienced any racism in England, but of course I know that racism exists everywhere, including China. A culture defends itself and sees everything foreign as a threat - this is not uncommon. I moved to Cambridge mainly because of my son's school. I have noticed that people like to discuss things there and accept other opinions. Not like in Germany, where you just pretend to be an open society, which I understand is not the case. Take my film "Human Flow" about the refugee problem in Europe, which was widely discussed in England and France and caused a sensation, only in Germany it did not find an audience.

Did you feel too little heard?

It's not about me personally. I am accepted as an artist and invited everywhere. I only notice that while I was still living in China, people liked to talk to me about China. But when I came to Berlin, suddenly you didn't like it anymore. I suppose it has to do with the economic ties that link Germany with China. And least of all Germans like it when you criticize their own country, as many people who live here have confirmed to me.

We actually came to talk to you about your latest work. Instead of looking at it in a museum, you can buy your “Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way” at the Hornbach home improvement store and assemble it yourself with your instructions. Is that a challenge to the elite art scene, which mainly meets at fancy trade fairs?

All of my work revolves around the question of what we consider art and how we define art. In contrast to others, I am of the opinion that we are all artists as long as we use our imagination, as long as we dream and imagine things differently. But very often this ability is overshadowed by conventions and habits. We have been trimmed to do everything right since childhood, and behind that lies the idea of ​​safety. In art, as I understand it, it's about making mistakes, changing perspectives, questioning security. That's why it's so difficult to be an artist all the time.

You should never make yourself comfortable.

First you have to be able to survive at all. Quite a few artists have died without ever being able to live from their art. If you then manage to sell your art, you are often no longer an artist because it is only about selling a product.

What drew you to your do-it-yourself sculpture?

The work is based on a sculpture that I exhibited in New York in 1988, it was about Chinese army jackets that I "zipped" wrongly. By changing the original function of an object, one confuses certainties. A simple act that raises new questions, new perspectives. This is very important, especially in our day and age, when primeval forests are burning, seas are rising, millions of refugees are on the move and individual countries have a war machine at their disposal that could wipe out all of humanity at the push of a button.

Why is contemporary art so rarely political?

Who are you talking about? You come from Switzerland, do you mean Giacometti?

We were thinking more of artists like Jeff Koons and his "Rabbit" sculpture, which fetched a record $ 91 million.

Let's talk about Giacometti. One must not forget that his meager sculptures were very much avant-garde at the time. Just think of what art looked like before Giacometti. But I find it superfluous to just repeat today what others have already done at the beginning of the 20th century. That's awful. In general, however, it can be said that art is increasingly becoming a consumer good. Buyers want to surround themselves with prestigious objects. The gallery scene is actually a very small circle that serves a well-educated group of wealthy collectors who dominate the art market. I'm not interested in that.

Then what?

I'm interested in communicating with an audience that has nothing to do with art and is not interested in art in galleries or museums. The good thing about the home improvement store is that you don't associate it with art. There is little conceit here and less fear of contact.

The do-it-yourself kind

Democratic art from the hardware store

The principle of the extraordinary collaboration between Ai Weiwei and Hornbach is based on the idea of ​​a Swiss creative agency and is as simple as it is subversive: You download the manual for the sculpture "Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way", equip yourself accordingly in the hardware store, and lend a hand on - and thus becomes an artist himself. (the.)

Even so, it's unusual for an independent, world-famous artist like you to partner with a company.

I didn't sell my soul to Hornbach. On the contrary. They had the vision and the courage to invite me and gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. Many big companies have offered me to work with them in the past, but in the end they were all afraid I would upset China. Anyone who enters into a deal with me can never be sure what the outcome will be. I cannot guarantee that I will make anyone happy.

What do you reply to those who see your campaign as profane advertising for a German hardware store?

Why shouldn't good ideas be advertised?

You are working on several projects at the same time. You are staging an opera in Rome, preparing films and exhibitions. How do you do that? What is your day-to-day work like?

For a long time I saw myself as a kind of caretaker in a large building. If something was leaking somewhere and I was needed, I would run and fix it. Today I can delegate better. And believe me, there are nicer things than starting disputes with China and Germany, and yet I'm stupid enough to keep doing it. I just can't help it. In my free time, however, I prefer to play chess.

And you spend a lot of time on the internet.

I love the social networks. The production of my art takes up about twenty percent of my time, the rest I spend on the Internet. My phone is like part of my body, I love it. It offers incredible possibilities. Humanity has never created anything so powerful.


I only began to get interested in social networks when I understood who was afraid of them: the governments in China, North Korea, Iraq, they can put you in jail for a single tweet.

Is there a place where you feel at home?

Well, I actually travel a lot and mostly live in hotels, which I really like. The biggest problem is that when I wake up in the morning I don't always know where exactly I am and, above all, I can't find the light switches in the room. Also, I don't like hotels with windows that don't open, but these are luxury issues. I never had a real home. When I was a child, we were exiled with my father. In a sense, I was born a refugee. I can't go to China, in Germany they suddenly don't like me anymore, and, apart from my son's education, I'm not particularly interested in England either.

Then come to Switzerland!

Recently I was in Zurich at the university. A friend of mine said Zurich was the best place ever, so maybe I should think twice. But actually I feel like the plants that you sometimes see on the power lines above the streets in Brazil. They survive without their roots in the ground.