Renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said freedom of expression issues are widespread around the world in a recent talk at High Festival Segovia, a literature and arts festival held annually in Segovia, Spain.
Screen speaking via video conference with Ann McElfoy, Executive Editor of The EconomistAi spoke at length about political dissidents, human rights and freedom of expression, although his criticisms were not limited to China. During an exchange about Aye’s time in Europe exploring the refugee crisis in mid-2010, McIlfoy wondered if the artist thought Western countries also had a problem with free speech.
He said, “The basic human capacity to question or question existing values, and to shake those things that are unshakable, that disappear in the western realms.” “Not hearing the other argument, the other sound, reminds me of China.”
Ai’s appearance in Hay was part of his press tour for his recent memoir 1000 years of joys and sorrows, much of it related to his father, Ai Cheng, the critically acclaimed poet who, like Ai, has been described by the Chinese government as a political dissident. The artist recalled growing up in a very remote area of China, where his father was exiled and saw many forms of punishment used against his father, from being forced to clean public toilets and performing other hard labor to being prevented from publishing his poems. . However, Ai remained defiant.
“I think I should go back to China,” he said. “They can only make me disappear again or my voice can never be heard again, but I still exist. If my presence makes them make that decision, I would be very proud of it.”
When McElvoy asked why the artist decided to return to China in the early 1990s he knew he might face persecution. Ai described suffering in New York in the 1980s, noting that the city was dangerous and that he struggled to earn a living or speak English.
“Gradually I began to realize that it would be impossible for me to become a professional artist and to support myself by making art,” he said. Ai returned to China after more than a decade in the United States when he heard that his father was ill.
“That was my last excuse to go back to that land, that land I promised I would never return to,” he said. He said that before returning to China, he asked himself if he was afraid of going to prison. He decided he could handle it. Returning to China was difficult, but he described it as a privilege to speak Chinese again and express himself fluently.
When asked if artists are being asked to pay a heavy price in their defense of human freedom, Ai seemed to contradict himself.
I wouldn’t say the price is too high when asking for social justice. Personal freedom is the goal of life and there is no high price,” he said. “Although if you die individually or are put in a prison cell where you never get out, that price is very high.”