A scene from Human Flow.
He describes his present base in Berlin as a dormitory existence. He says that he doesn’t speak German and rarely leaves his studio. He works through the weekend and says he never takes vacations. And all this is OK; the work keeps him occupied.” Also, it’s still very dangerous for me to go back to China. Twelve of my lawyers are still serving sentences. One for five years, another for 10. I call my mum on the phone; she’s well over 80. And she always tells me,’ Don’t ever come back .'”
I ask what he believes of China’s current prospects. To a western eye, his homeland seems to be in the dominance. It is well placed to profit from the actions of a wayward, bellicose US administration; poised to become the undisputed global superpower.
But Ai pulls a disgusted face. He thinks I’m missing the phase.” Can China be a global power? I don’t think so. It can gain an advantage, that’s true. But it doesn’t have soul. It doesn’t have heart. It doesn’t trust its own people. So it has no self-identity in the sense that it has never accepted human rights as common values. No freedom of speech , no independent judicial system. If those don’t exist, how can you have imagination? How can you be a country? So keep forgetting China. China is an illusion. It’s there, it’s big. But nobody can tell you what it is .”
The way Ai tells it, he exists in a perpetual state of flux; rootless to the core. He likens himself to a leaf on a stream, carried this route and that, never knowing where he is going to wind up next. Up to a point, this stimulates perfect sense. But it strikes me that there’s another way of framing the man’s narrative; one in which he is a far more active agent. In this version, Ai has expended their own lives in opposition to his homeland- in a perpetual country of friction , not flux. If anything has defined him, it is his relationship with China. Without China, I suggest, he wouldn’t be an artist at all.
” Yeah, precisely ,” says Ai. The notion pricks his interest.” I would be what ?” he asks.” Without all the scream, without the prison, the beatings, just what would I be? Probably right now I’d be walking down Broadway, just like all the other immigrants. Trying to find the next task, pay next month’s rent. Or I’d be back in China, running a restaurant. Or in a suit, in an office, another Chinese citizen .” He reaches for his water.” But maybe not, even then, because my father was a poet. He brought me up on Whitman, Neruda and Rimbaud. All that induced “i m feeling” there was another prospect, and that struggle means freedom. That, I believe, is the revenge of life .”
Does he ever wish that it could have been different? Imagine for a moment there had been no banishment to the desert. No humbled father , no prison , no Berlin. He might have led what passes for an ordinary existence. Wouldn’t he sometimes prefer to be running a restaurant in Beijing?
” Good topic ,” he says.” Of course you are human – you sometimes wonder these things. But I still think I would choose exactly the same route, even though the steps that I have taken have been very hard. It has been so ugly, so painful, but it has also brought so much elation. I guess I’m a person who detects exhilaration through difficulty .” He barks a short chuckle.” No difficulty , no pleasure .”
Human Flow is released in the US on 13 October