Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ai Weiwei and Vito Acconci: On Life, Culture, and other Matters, Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya

In 2008 Para/Site Art Space invited Ai Weiwei to work on a project in Hong Kong. To my surprise, he accepted. Indeed, we didn’t have much to offer to him, if we compare the micro space of Para/Site Art Space to the Tate Modern or the Mori Art Museum, to mention just two of the institutions with which he is working. At my suggestion, we invited Vito Acconci to collaborate on the project. For sure, the pairing was unusual, and a very challenging one. Vito Acconci stopped producing art in 1988, and Ai Weiwei stopped producing architecture two years ago. The similarities in their careers and their mutual respect for one another brought them together in a way that I did not expect. This has probably been the most challenging project that I have ever been involved with as a curator-a project that, at the time of this writing, is growing and headed for uncharted territory. The project was initiated with their decision to transform the art space into a meeting ground for both their studios in New York and Beijing and will be undergoing constant transformation until July 4, 2010. Part of this project involves a twelve-channel sound device/installation that plays recordings of the working sessions between Ai Weiwei and Acconci Studio. On display are 128 snapshots, most of them taken by Ai Weiwei, that portray their time together in Hong Kong and Beijing, plus an endless accumulation of texts and architectural models.

As phase II of the project took place in Hong Kong with a series of working sessions between them and their studios, I decided to interview them for ARTPULSE. The resulting conversation* highlights their different ways of thinking but also their connections. We met for breakfast in Causeway Bay, which is the closest that you can get to Tokyo in Hong Kong, and talked about art and life, with the occasional interruption from Ai Weiwei’s one-year-old baby. As Ai Weiwei’s native language is not English, there was an imbalance in the conversation, but this was also because Vito Acconci is a person of language, and Ai Weiwei is more comfortable with the short and sharp communications of Twitter, where he spends an average of eight hours every day following the closure of his blog by the Chinese government.


Vito Acconci - People choose their influence-at least, people decide.

Ai Weiwei - Do you think people decide better than a three-years-old child? I think it is better [decided by] a three-years-old child.

V.A. - It’s probably true!

A.W. - No one lives alone, and without cultural influence, either you influence somebody or you are being influenced. It’s like being exposed to viruses all the time-sometimes they attack us, and sometimes we get along with it; this is [the] general condition.

V.A. - I love the idea of influencing, but I hate the idea of imitators. The worst thing is when people do some copy of work I do. But I’ve been influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, I’ve been influenced by Jasper Johns, Jean Genet, and . . . the architects Piranesi, Boullee . . .

A.W. - Vito is a dreamer, and he has found a way where he feels comfortable how to present himself; it is just like a writer [Vito Acconci agrees]. I think that Duchamp gave a new definition of art and made his contemporaries look old. Duchamp is about the attitude, about questioning and questioning yourself. [He] represented a general condition of the artists, rather than focusing on painting or sculpture. I find this helpful for everybody-the minute you take a position, then you are an artist. It is not about the institutions, and not about the establishment. I think he hated the establishment and thought . . . it . . . a stupidity.

V.A. - Duchamp said, “In France there is a statement ‘Stupid as a painter.’” I didn’t want to be stupid. The influence of Duchamp is an issue that is so confusing, as for my generation it was an issue that was so pervasive. In some way you wanted to find something wrong with Duchamp, you wanted to find the way out. The public attitude of the dandy is something that I don’t like so much; I want things to be more open, the notion of the secret of what I’m doing, you know I’m doing nothing, I’m playing chess, but I’m doing something else that nobody knows about it-for me, I hate that. I hate the idea of an artist saying, “I did something, but I don’t know why I did it.” Of course language is always going to be parallel to an activity and you are never going to completely explain that, but you have to try. I hate the idea that you can talk about other activities but not about art; it’s like religion! And I hate religion. I went to Catholic school from the age of five to twenty-two. I would never believe anything again, and I love not believing. I want to use something, art or architecture, but I don’t want to believe something.

Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya - Was Joseph Beuys a problem?

A.W. - Joseph Beuys is not a problem for me. In the United States some people could not accept Joseph Beuys because it had such a heavy sense of history. And in the sixties and seventies the artists in the United States think they are so liberated, so special, because of the moment they were living; they thought that living with the problems of today is enough. But the current condition is the past, and the future will come to us, so why are we so busy going back and forth? We just stay there and just let it go through us; we are just like a filter. But many nations have to live in the past because they can never get rid of it or are always haunted by their nightmares.

A.R.F. - Is that China-is it a country that lives in the past?

A.W. - Yes, China is trying to reshape the past into something different. It is already a fact that they want to either change it or erase. We sit, and we say, “Come on, this is not possible!” Going back to Beuys, to me personally, I don’t really understand him that well.

V.A. - It is a problem. The idea of all these followers wearing the same kind of hat is scary. Maybe the Nazi attitude doesn’t go away that easily.

A.W. - We always want to reduce ourselves, and we wake up and think [about] what we want to do today. And that’s a crisis.

V.A. - For me it was a conscious decision: I don’t want to have a style, I don’t want to know what I’m going to do each day. I want to be excited every day.

A.W. - Irony is that even that attitude becomes a style [laughs].

V.A. - The upper side of that [is] I don’t have to do anything too deeply.

A.W. - It’s like Warhol, right? The shallowness versus depth. It is not easy to become a surface.

A.R.F. - This brings the question of individuality versus the collective.

V.A. - Right now the collective is very important to me, because I don’t think the work comes from one; the work comes from a group of people, even though that group changes, but I want the work to come from a group.

A.R.F. - Does art or architecture have a place helping develop a collective that is free and democratic, with individuals who stand up?

V.A. - I think it can. I think the art attitude is very simple: it’s what children do all the time, they see this [his palm facing up], let’s have it like this [his palm faces down], let’s turn it upside down, let’s try something else. I think the basic attitude of art, . . . but that’s the scientist attitude as well . . . sometimes I don’t see the difference.

A.W. - Contemporary thinking is about questioning the establishment.

V.A. - Is it more of a Western attitude that the artist has to change [things]?

A.W. - In the East you have Zen and Tao, which is very loose. The moment your consciousness . . . the world begins to be alive. You cannot only start every day, but every moment you can become enlightened. Of course it is hard to achieve. But you can appreciate the moment that you use your heart. I think that this is antiestablishment because you achieve enlightenment from some way that you don’t even know it. Establishment is the way we normally think the world is and accept in our normal logic. Jasper Johns said we never change object, we only change perception; it is the role of the artist to make the change of perception be effective.


V.A. - I love Hong Kong. It is easier to love a place when you’ve been only three or four days. I love the ups and downs; I love the very tall, very thin buildings-when you don’t have much space you use as much as you can. It is a city of stairs, of ramps, of changes of level, but it is a city also of niches; every street seems to have alleys. Public space doesn’t exist in the plaza; public space is in the alleys, in the intersections. Public are people talking on the phone. Hong Kong feels like an old version of the future. It is very new and very old at same time. There is . . . an urge to make something newer and shinier; I got this feeling when I went to Tokyo as well. City needs mix, mix of people-that is the future: not necessary blending but the individual particles . . . I get scared with notions like the “public”; the only way of the public to exist it is becoming many clusters.

A.W - Cities like Hong Kong have great potential of becoming very important cities. But of course not so much happens in the [art] museum, which is fine as long as people get consciously involved in discussions. Why spend twenty years in education? This will change. But the system itself defends itself; they wouldn’t let it go, it is like a monster.


A.W. - The most liberating power since the human came down from a tree is the Internet. The Internet maximizes the individual power-every individual can freely gather information and build its own structure and express itself. It is a miracle; we don’t need more than that. It is the ultimate tool and it gets back the dignity of being individual; one dot here, one dot there, and they can connect the same second. This is beyond imagination. And still it allows you to be yourself, still be a dot and not to connect to anybody. I posted a note about dinner in a Hong Kong restaurant and over one hundred people turn out. They know you, but we never met before, and then they disappear. And this dot mobilizes another one hundred dots, absolutely a technical society, and all this is for free. Twitter friends from sixteen to thirty years. For the Internet there is no nations, no boundaries anymore.

V.A. - I have kind of resisted Facebook and so on, but maybe it is a big mistake. It’s not second nature to me.


A.W. - Cultural institutions are shameful, because culture is about sharing, about free exchange.

V.A. - Art culture, especially when money is involved, is about keeping people out. It is about a language that nobody can understand. I love theory but I hate jargon. Art in New York is like that.

A.W. - I think New York has institutionalized the art system.

V.A. - Common thinking is that the generation of the seventies was breaking the frame. Still, when I started, the most important art for me was minimal art, so when I got to a gallery, I would start looking everywhere-you were not sure where art was. And then the eighties ruined everything. That is the common thought. But I’m afraid that my generation caused the eighties. It was in my generation that the art gallery dealer became more important than ever, as the gallery dealer could say to the collector, “I know that you can’t even see this but I’m telling you that this is art.” So we did a horrific thing. We didn’t intend to do it, but the things that you don’t intend to do are always more important than the things that you intend to do.

A.W. - Like Einstein as a scientist-his attitude was to be against becoming an icon, but he became an icon; ironically, he became an icon himself!

V.A. - When I started doing life performance, what . . . started to really bother me was that everybody that knew a piece of mine then knew what I looked like, so I started to think, “Am I doing art or am I starting a personality cult?” [laughs]

V.A. - Language is changing so fast that I’m not so conscious about it. I’m already behind it; computers are a language itself.

A.W. - My father was purely a language person, and my ultimate goal was to see if I could write. But we walked in opposite directions, if he is a writer, and I become a builder. I want to be a writer.

V.A. - Music of a particular time has always been the prime influence: Neil Young, Morrison, Ramones, Sex Pistols.

A.W. - Now the music to me is Twitter.

“Acconci Studio + Ai Weiwei: A Collaborative Project” is on show at Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong, through July 4, 2010.

* Conversation took place on April 12, 2010 in Hong Kong.

Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya is executive director/curator at Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong). He has developed his professional career in Hong Kong, London and Spain. He was chief curator at Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM) in Spain. At Para/Site Art Space, he has organized projects with Shahzia Sikander, Surasi Kusolwong, Tsang Kin-Wah and Gao Brothers, among others.

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