Ai Weiwei on memorials, colonisation, and freedom in art at the Intellectual Forum

On 21 April, the legendary Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist Ai Weiwei came to speak at the Intellectual Forum, in conversation with Jesus College Fellow and Professor of NanoScience Jeremy Baumberg.

Ai Weiwei discussed the relationship between authority and art, visibility in the arts, and artistic process and time, in a wide-ranging conversation with Jeremy and the audience.

One of the key topics that Weiwei focussed on during his talk was AI ‘art’ and whether such a thing could be said to exist. Taking a decisive stance on this current controversial topic, Weiwei argued that, by its very nature and name, AI is artificial and so can’t ever have the humanity needed to create art.

“It takes real joy to create good art” - Ai Weiwei

Weiwei also set out some of his thoughts on the relationship between artistic meaning and creation, stating that “it takes real joy to create good art”.

He considered the connection between art and ageing, saying “we all exist as the old and the new at the same time. It all depends on how you look at things [...] It depends on our ways of interpretation”.

Among other memorable comments that Weiwei made on this topic was the assertion that “writing is the highest form of art”; he also said of art that “the meaning is the usage” when discussing different media and how creation shapes expression. He summarised his thoughts in stating that “art is about intuition or reflection or sensitivity, and it's not easy to be measured”.

And for Weiwei, art isn’t just about creation. He is known for being very destructive with his artwork, most notoriously when in 1995 he purposefully dropped an ancient 2000-year-old Chinese urn on the ground, where it shattered. In his talk at the Intellectual Forum, he revealed that, for him, the act of destruction is the purpose of art, but not the ideology behind it.

“I would make myself disappear” - Ai Weiwei

He also spoke about his experience with the company Lego, and how they initially refused to sell him Lego bricks for use in his art because the company policy stated that Lego could not be used to make political statements. His reaction – to appeal for donations of Lego from anyone who would give them – led to Lego changing their policy, after Weiwei received huge quantities of Lego from his supporters.

The final subject that Weiwei spoke about was monuments and memorialisation. He described nature as “the greatest monument”, and, when asked in the closing question what one monument he would make if he could, replied simply, “I would make myself disappear”. This was a fitting statement to finish a thought-provokingly cryptic and challenging talk from one of the world’s foremost political thinkers and creators.

You can watch the recording of the event on the College YouTube channel. 

About the speaker

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist. He grew up in the far northwest of China, where he lived under harsh conditions due to his father's exile.

As an activist, he has been openly critical of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights. In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, for "economic crimes", and was detained for 81 days without charge. He emerged as one of the nation's most vocal political commentators and creators, and makes use of Chinese art forms to display Chinese political and social issues.

After being allowed to leave China in 2015, he has lived in Berlin, Germany; Cambridge, UK; and Portugal. Among many other accolades, he received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015 for showing exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights through his life and work.