NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident who believes it his job to be “incorrect,” was hard at work Tuesday night during an appearance at The Town Hall in Manhattan.
“I really like to make trouble,” Ai said during a 50-minute conversation-sparring match with author-interviewer Mira Jacob, during which he was as likely to question the question as he was to answer it. The event was presented by PEN America, part of the literary and free expression organization’s PEN Out Loud series.
Ai was in New York to discuss his new book, the graphic memoir “Zodiac,” structured around the animals of the Chinese zodiac, with additional references to cats. The zodiac has wide appeal with the public, he said, and it also serves as a useful substitute for asking someone their age; you instead ask for one’s sign.
“No one would be offended by that,” he said.
Ai began the night in a thoughtful, self-deprecating mood, joking about when he adopted 40 cats, a luxury forbidden during his childhood, and wondered if one especially attentive cat wasn’t an agent for “the Chinese secret police.” Cats impress him because they barge into rooms without shutting the door behind them, a quality shared by his son, he noted.
“Zodiac” was published this week by Ten Speed Press and features illustrations by Gianluca Costantini. The book was not initiated by him, Ai said, and he was to let others do most of the work.
“My art is about losing control,” he said, a theme echoed in “Zodiac.”
He is a visual artist so renowned that he was asked to design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but so much a critic of the Chinese Communist Party that he was jailed three years later for unspecified crimes and has since lived in Portugal, Germany and Britain.
The West can be just as censorious as China, he said Tuesday. Last fall, the Lisson Gallery in London indefinitely postponed a planned Ai exhibition after he tweeted, in response to the Israel-Hamas war, that “The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world. Financially, culturally, and in terms of media influence, the Jewish community has had a significant presence in the United States.”
After Jacobs read the tweet to him, Ai joked, “You sound like an interrogator.”
Ai has since deleted the tweet, and said Tuesday that he thought only in “authoritarian states” could one get into trouble on the internet.
“I feel pretty sad,” he said, adding that “we are all different” and that the need for “correctness,” for a single way of expressing ourselves, was out of place in a supposedly free society.
“Correctness is a bad end,” he said.
Some questions, submitted by audience members and read by Jacobs, were met with brief, off-hand and often dismissive responses, a test of correctness.
Who inspires you, and why?
“You,” he said to Jacobs.
“Because you’re such a beautiful lady.”
Can one make great art when comfortable?
Does art have the power to change a country’s politics?
“That must be crazy to even think about it.”
Do you even think about change while creating art?
“You sound like a psychiatrist.”
What do you wish you had when you were younger?
How are you influenced by creating art in a capitalistic society?
“I don’t consider it at all. If I’m thirsty, I drink some water. If I’m sleepy, I take a nap. I don’t worry more than that.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
“I’d be an artist.”