So how many pieces of secondhand Lego does Ai Weiwei own? “Millions,” he says. “We haven’t had the chance to count it yet.”
There are a “huge” number of donations still pouring in from 20 collection points at museums around the world, a response to an appeal when Lego declined a bulk order on behalf of the artist, on the grounds that supporting the blockbuster exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei would contravene “corporate policy”.
Among the Lego donators is Ai’s young son.
“I told him: ‘Anything special don’t give it to me; I just need the simple blocks.’ But it was still such a difficult choice for him.” With every decision the child was swamped by remorse, the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ of six-year-olds. “He had a lot [of Lego] but finally he only gave me a little.”
Speaking to Guardian Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Ai says the appeal illustrates how essential the toys are to every child. I mention there is something wonderful about the symbolic childhoods of so many disparate strangers snapping together with that distinctive “click”. “It’s a beautiful game. I think it’s important for people to think about building together.”
After its refusal, Ai retaliated against Lego by reposting the letter text on his Instagram with a photo of a toilet bowl clogged with the toy bricks. The toilet bore the signature “R. Mutt 2015”, a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade porcelain urinal, Fountain.
The Danish company’s refusal to sell its product was “an act of censorship and discrimination”, he wrote.
To meet the Australian exhibition deadline, which features a commission using toy bricks to depict and quote from notable local campaigners including Julian Assange – who he met at the Ecuadorian embassy in London – Rosie Batty, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Peter Greste, he turned to Lego’s competitors. Chinese companies have copies of “everything”, and with a wry smile says he was able to quickly buy the required two million pieces “much cheaper, and the same quality”.
So, is it easier to go up against a multinational company than it is his traditional sparring partner, the Chinese Communist party? “I don’t think so. All those big companies have the same kind of bureaucracy, same kind of ignorance.”
In both Lego and the CCP, Ai recognises a refusal to negotiate or “change their line”, even when mistakes have been made, even historical mistakes by an organisation’s forebears. “They have to stand by them because losing even one piece can collapse the whole structure.”
Corruption and repression of individual rights and voices are just as much trademarks of corporations as they are authoritarian governments, he says.
Since the end of October, Ai has been collecting Lego for some future unknown artwork. I present him with my own sandwich bag of 25 pieces of Lego, which he graciously accepts. “Every number counts,” he says, in the softest voice. At times he is barely audible, which is so incongruous to his hefty figure.
Along with his wispy, black facial hair he bears a resemblance to the Chinese god of wealth, a little ironic considering he was detained for 81 days without formal charge by the Chinese government in 2012 on the grounds of investigating tax evasion. (His company was eventually ordered to pay 15m yuan or $2.4m in back taxes and fines.)
After his detention, Ai’s passport was retained by the government and he staged a simple, yet solemn, ritual protest: placing fresh flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his Beijing studio every morning. Over the four years, there were multiple times the authorities claimed to be on the verge of returning his passport, only to push back the date. “I started to think they’re playing a game,” he says.
Ai stopped believing he would ever get his passport back – after all, he would hardly be the first. “Tibetans cannot get their passports, Xinjiang’s Uighur people cannot get their passports – millions of people – and many, many lawyers, not only can they not get a passport but their children, too, cannot study outside China.” He contrasts this with the “thousands of officials” living abroad with their partners and children. “They live very comfortable, glamorous lives, but they treat anybody who has a different opinion as the enemy.”
Ai lives in Berlin, as does his son and his son’s mother for the past year, and is teaching at a university. But he still considers himself a “Chinese citizen”. Ai’s mother and other family are in China; most of his work is still produced from his Chinese studio where dozens of people are employed.
“I plan to go back any time I want to or need to,” he says. True freedom must include the ability to return to China, not to simply leave it, “otherwise it’s not freedom”.
He has already tested this facility of movement, recently visiting Beijing for two weeks without issue. “It’s fine, but it can change at any moment.”
Other than his bicycle protest Ai has seemingly taken a step back from political activism since his detention. News footage included in the 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, captured the artist attempting to quietly return home after his detention. He looked harrowed and several kilos lighter.
He was polite but firm in refusing to speak to media. It seemed the man who once blogged at least once a day, installed a live webcam in his studio, and tweeted and posted selfies with the fever of a teenager had suddenly fallen silent.
When asked why he wasn’t giving interviews, he said: “Live your life. Everybody just live your life.” The cameras continued to flash in his face. “I cannot say anything, I’m on bail. I cannot give any interviews, please. So sorry.”
When I preface my next question as possibly being “hard to answer” he interrupts and says: “No question is hard to answer.”
Does he feel he can’t be as belligerent as he used to be?
Ai asks what “belligerent” means. I explain it as: “Where you go ‘fuck you, Chinese government’, and stick your middle finger up.”
He says: “We are all learning from our own past and also we are all learning from our struggle with the opposition.” Ai is still negotiating with how to maintain his beliefs, “not to let it just disappear, burn out, or make it too simplified”.
His reply may seem evasive compared with the straight-shooting of past videos such as Fuck Your Motherland (the title is self-explanatory), but perhaps his is a case of losing a few battles to win the war.
“I mean you cannot always just demand for ideology – you have to see a way how to make it happen.”
It is important to always brush up as close as possible to the line, I suggest. To play smart, rather than too aggressive or too safe. “That’s politics, right?” Ai says.
He claims to have never stopped speaking his mind. “If anybody checks my record they’ll know nobody can change my beliefs. But also, I’m an artist. I always question my language, my skill and the way to present an idea.”
Ai’s enduring relationship with the world beyond China’s borders stretches all the way back to 1982 when he moved to New York as a young artist. Partially the result of his fraught relationship with the Chinese government, much of his work, certainly his biggest exhibitions, have all been held in international galleries.
It has led some to question whether his pieces are ever made for a Chinese audience in mind, or do they merely pander to long-held and oversimplified western assumptions about China and its shortfalls?
Ai says he creates art for “human beings” who understand their own essential values and needs. “And they don’t have to be western – they can be Indian, can be Vietnamese, or can be Russian.”
He takes issue with the idea of Chinese exceptionalism, which is nothing new in China. “They call themselves zhongguo [Middle Kingdom]; they call all the west barbarians”, he says.
“China is no different from the west,” he says. Any gap that might exist is merely a result of the basic human rights that have been sacrificed in recent history. “Most [Chinese] people don’t know what they’re lacking. That’s why I have to fight. I have to make people understand we are not different, we are all created equal.”
Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei at the NGV maps out where the two artists intersect. Works such as Ai’s neolithic urn defaced with a Coca-Cola logo seem to echo Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. But it would be reductive to call Ai “the Andy Warhol of 2015”. He says the show is interesting because it simultaneously highlights how close but also “so far away, so far apart” the artists are in their respective cultural backgrounds.
In their art, Ai aggressively engages with politics and current affairs (such as his moving roll call of the more than 5,000 students that died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) while Warhol was forever occupied with consumerism, pop culture iconography and celebrity.
A frisson is created by their respective portrayals of Mao Zedong hung in tandem. Ai says Warhol was a “very keen and very sensitive” artist, but portrayed the chairman as “no different to Marilyn Monroe or a Coca-Cola sign – purely a sign or signature of that time”.
The Chinese artist has a very different relationship to the ruthless political leader who he says was “very responsible” for damaging the nation, the destruction of so much Chinese tradition and so much personal, family crisis (Ai’s father, the notable poet Ai Qing, was exiled to Xinjiang as part of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign).
In another room Warhol’s photographic impressions of China during a 1982 visit face Ai’s photos of his life in New York. Ai finds it strange Warhol visited the country since it was “every bit” the opposite of what he believed. “He said China was not beautiful because it didn’t have McDonald’s yet.”
Ai finds humour in this statement and says it an illuminating peek into Warhol’s values. “He couldn’t believe in that whole society at the time, maybe nearly a billion people, not a single one knew who Andy Warhol was. That shocked him the most.”
Ai says what drew him, an immigrant from China, to New York was the same thing that drew Warhol, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as the son of working- class Slovakian immigrants: “Bright lights, big city.”
Where Warhol found the “vanity, fame and success” he’d been searching for, the cards were stacked a little higher against Ai: the cultural gap, his lack of fluent English, difficulty earning a decent wage (his jobs ranged from construction to house-cleaning, and babysitting). “I could not contribute to that society. I didn’t see New York needing me at all, so after 12 years I went back to China.”
But by then he felt just as much like a misfit in China as he did in the US. He says he “didn’t belong to a society which had no freedom of speech”, but stayed on because his father was ill and would soon die. He started getting into antique collecting, then architecture, but it was his 2005 discovery of the internet that really “opened up another universe” for the artist.
The internet gives him a “sense of belonging”.
“I can spend day and night on the internet and talk to people and exchange ideas.” He says the feeling is a kind of “numbness” but also one of immense power, of energy, imagination, and a burning desire to communicate – “In human history, there’s never been a moment like this.”
Warhol’s famous phrase “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes” seems to foreshadow this era of around-the-clock social media. Ai says the artist was “50 years ahead of his time” and that “what’s happening on Twitter was exactly like his writing” – punchy and pointed – “from brilliant ideas to very stupid sentences”. And selfies? “He did that a long time ago.”
If there is anything the two artists share, says Ai, it is this: “He loved his time.”
Warhol was the greatest chronicler of contemporary culture, much like his Chinese counterpart. “I love this time for being in China and I do create a certain kind of social movement and social consciousness.”
For Ai, social media is much more than a storehouse of cat videos (he also shares with Warhol a love of cats), or even a vehicle for his ideas. It is both weapon and armour, used to ruthless effect in his long-running tangle with the Chinese authorities. His footage of police brutality has been broadcast to thousands over the internet airwaves and turned into artworks and documentaries. In one telling scene in Never Sorry, Ai’s videographer, Zhao Zhao, is shot filming a public safety officer who is filming Ai and his friends eating dinner on a Chinese street: like a snake, eating its own tail or mirrors infinitely reflecting into one another.
At one point during our conversation, which is being filmed, he takes out his smartphone and films me back. When he does it a second time, I call it “disconcerting”.
“I have to do it. As revenge,” he says.
• Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 11 December 2015 to 24 April 2016
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