Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Ai Wei-Wei in Berlin 2015 - 2018


                Ai Wei-Wei in Berlin  1.November 2015

On a beautiful autumn Sunday, the 1st of November 2015, Ai Weiwei was introduced to the students and a wider, very interested public at the University of Art in Berlin.

The artist Ai Wei-Wei has accepted to become visiting professor at the University of the Arts, and this for three years. While countless diplomatic efforts and the financial support of the Einstein Foundation made it possible, a private reason for him accepting the offer can be added. Surely due to having a son born out of marriage and who lives with his mother here in Berlin, it may have prompted him to seek such a teaching position. His son is six years old and has not seen until now much of his famous father.

He was introduced by a panel of art professors (video, dance, communication, Chinese studies) who interviewed him. They did so by going through various stages in his life and diverse approaches to making art become a part of his life.

Stage 1 included a retrospective of his ten years in New York. There he met among others Ginsburg and had an Irish teacher who convinced him painting was not necessarily his call. He departed from this obligation to paint once inspired by Duchamp who freed him from the need to justify himself of being an artist.

Before leaving China for New York, he had painted an interesting double reflex of Mao. Ai Weiwei pointed out everything is political once you go through the streets and see this image of Mao everywhere. In the painting one iconographic Mao was tainted in grey, the other in blood like red colours and who had a huge smile on his face. This double image can be interpreted in many different, equally interesting ways. Ai Weiwei described the confrontation with such a dominant image, for one can get the feeling that this is like a God, or something metaphysical. In reality, one does not know how to deal with such a figure in terms of own human experiences. New York means for him after having discovered Duchamp, that he could redefine himself as artist. It is not about what works one produces but how one learns to live and above all to behave.

This first stage was introduced by playing a sound recording of Ginsberg's voice. Each stage was represented by a definite object. The first stage ended when the moderator threw the record containing the voice of Ginsberg onto the table in front of Ai Weiwei. He sat there with his Chinese shoes on and displayed throughout a definite body language on how he listened, looked down or up to look into the eyes of the person beside him. The latter functioned as translator from German into Chinese or English, or vice versa.

Stage 2, the moderator Thomas Düllo, himself Professor for Media and Communication with interest in how one inscribes oneself into the arts and culture, placed a brick on the table. Anna Anders, Video professor, posed then the question, why he has constructed houses. As this was symbolized by just a brick, she interpreted it as a representation of continuity in the form of construction, whereas Ai Weiwei added another meaning of continuity since even after destruction a brick can be re-used to build a house again.

Ai Wei-Wei revealed that he was with his father in a labour camp and since the father as a writer was not fit for physical work, he made instead the bricks for him. Ai Weiwei was then ten years old. He described how heavy the bricks were to carry but how beautiful when preparing the mud the night before and how beautiful it was for him once baked. Difficult was the dust since it itched all over the body. The brick became for him a main object with which he build also his studio. An image of one wall made out of bricks was displayed on the huge video screen behind him. It evoked the comment by Anna Anders that each brick was unique and had its own story to tell.

Stage 3, was introduced by one photo found at the flee market. Dancer and choreographer Nik Haffner asked, if he had been already at the flee market here in Berlin. Ai Weiwei replied yes, this morning. Nik Haffner continued his questioning: why he leaves traces of different epochs on all of his art works? The answer of Ai Weiwei was that during the Cultural Revolution everything which had value in the past was destroyed, hence he wishes to preserve the value of these things. He saw all the books of his father being burned. Then he realized that one can find at the flee market precious memory pieces, the value of which most of the time those selling these things do not understand. Repeatedly he emphasized this lack of understanding the value of things especially by poor and simple people who deal with these things merely as a matter of fact.

Nik Haffner brought up again the photo in the discussion. Depicted are three bodies - Ai Weiwei corrected him immediately with 'four' to include the tiny doll the girl in the photo was holding. The three persons, a man, a child and a woman, are shown to be sitting in the shallow water near the shore. The photo was taken in 1922. Nik Haffner drew attention to what was written on the back side. Someone had written something in an old German language difficult to decipher. It was an explanation that the woman in the photo had a stiff neck and, therefore, could not look into the camera.

Stage 4: the object was a globe and Karlheinz Lüdeking asked the question why he has taken so many photos to depict his travels through life and to different places on the globe? Ai Wei-Wei called it his bad habit of taking photos all the time. Even during the interview while sitting on the stage, he took photos of the audience and of the objects which were presented to him. He does so with the built-camera in a smart phone. His explanation is that he cannot see everything in the present and only in retrospect he realizes by means of the photo things, that he had overlooked a lot such as the beautiful ladies in the audience. He does take photos to inscribe into culture that other perception. He does not do it out of self indulgence, but to preserve memories of the present for future generations. His aim is that future generations can see what we did not see in the present, but which was existing in our present.

The art of teaching art without defining art (Duchamp)

Asked if he would deman of his students to take photos, he said, no, it was only his own bad habits. But when asked how we would conduct his classes, he said there are so many interesting places where discussions can start about how human beings behave. For art is something to be lived, and means for him to experience how one behaves oneself as a human being. Therefore he will conduct his lessons not only in a class room, but will do field trips. The journey can go also through different time zones.

Besides he believes everyone knows how to respond and to create something. He was astonished when interviewing his potential students what vast knowledge they have. What is needed is a guidance when they discuss matters related to one another.

From the 100 students who have applied to take a class with him, he selected 16. Some videos of the interviews of the potential students were shown. Of interest was what questions he posed or to what he responded to when students explained themselves. One student expressed her wish to participate in his class insofar she knows that he will create an interested, very mixed group out of which many creative acts can emerge. When he asked another student, if she know what is honest, what not, the answer was an evasion by not giving a direct answer but by pointing out everyone has his or her own perspective and therefore will claim different things as being true.

When asked about the difference between aesthetics and ethics by a student in the audience, he stated that while aesthetics has been shaped over time, ethics reflect often religious and social norms to govern (determine) human behaviour. For any artist these two fields may prove to be an area of conflict.

Ai Wei-Wei denoted with a good portion of humor, while he pretends to be satisfied with less, in reality he has a desire for more. Desire is for him a key motivational axiom to explain and to understand human behaviour.

He re-accounted that a rich American visited him once in his studio in Beijing. He brought along his wife who was a distinguished lady. When she saw the few things he had in his studio, she said that surely he must need a warehouse. And indeed he confessed that he has a huge warehouse where he stores everything else. In that sense the less and the more is a good indication as to how he observes the law of proportionality. Translated into human behaviour, it means while he pretends do be satisfied with less, nevertheless he desires much more.

Ai Wei-Wei gave many more invaluable insights into what constitutes a true artist without ever defining what is art. He did not give at the University of the Arts a lecture. Rather he responded to the questions his now fellow professors posed. At times the interview took on the form as if different professors asked him to defend his Ph.D. thesis.

In the end, he admitted that he feels ashamed for his behaviour. He does not know how he gut sucked into the art market nor how the art market works. But surely he will not accept students to his class, if they wish only to learn from him how to be successful on the art market. In terms of human behaviour, he stated that we are not at all successful, especially when we see the plight of so many others around us. Recently he has been named by amnesty international to be their ambassador for Human Rights. Definitely he is ashamed of himself because of his way of behaving.

Asked how he would define art, he refused to give an answer. That can be misinterpreted as if he did not say much, but contrary to such a narration as to what took place on Sunday, Nov. 1st when Ai Weiwei was introduced as visiting professor, he showed there exists a different depth due to his Asiatic, and Chinese background. It seems as if a rational and analytical mind most of the German professors on the panel displayed cannot grasp this cultural difference. There were subtle differences which can lead easily to misunderstandings, if wrongly interpreted. This is the case when not grasping what is meant when someone says he takes photos and considers it to be a bad habit, even if it is at the same time a highly artistic demonstration of how a memory track is being created all the time, whether at home or at work, for the artist in him never rests. Indeed, Ai Weiwei is always on the look-out for a new set of questions and that in different places, including now Berlin.

hatto fischer

Berlin 1.11.2015


Further documentations:

Ai Wei-Wei: Sunflower Seeds – exhibit at Tate Modern



Ai Weiwei -- Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads



Ai Weiwei - Various Works



Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol.





Comment from Eleftheria Lialios

Berlin 1.11.2015

Dear all,

I want to reflect briefly what I experienced this afternoon here in Berlin.

The artist Ai Wei-Wei has accepted to become visiting professor at the University of the Arts here in Berlin, and this for three years.

He was introduced today by a panel of art professors (video, dance, communication, Chinese studies) interviewing him. They did so by going as well through various stages in his life.


Eleftheria Lialios

Dear Hatto,

Photography is not a bad habit. Otherwise, the great artists who did change the world because of their documents, would not have started the change with child labor laws (Lewis Hine) and poverty during the Great Depression (Farm Security Administration photographer-Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks)

You touched on a subject that is on my mind and something I do discuss frequently with myself and with friends. Ai Weiwei will not accept students into his class that do not think of the art market because he is responsible for the inequality and corruption that is still present in this field. For him, financial success is for the few, the few that have found their ‘collectors’, the names he will not give away because he really does believe that there is not enough, as opposed to me, who thinks the art world has plenty to give to the arts and artists of all media.

Thank you,


Berlin 2.11.2015

Dear Eleftheria,

his bad habit refers not to the quality of photography or what he does with it, but rather that he has the habit of taking photos wherever he goes or is.

A standard by-product is twofold: it becomes a constant renewal of the autobiographical sketch as if the audience is invited to be voyeurs to peek into his private or even inner most personal life.

The other aspect is that an artist in this media- and digital age reflects really what all are doing when hardly are they somewhere, they take photos in front of the subway entrance, before eating, what they eat, etc. The stick by which you can hold the camera at a certain distance to be able to take a photo of yourself belongs to that series. It might be described later as self inflated egos. I constantly wonder what do they really experience and how will they narrate later on what they have experienced while traveling through Europe?

Definitely you touch on a crucial point with regards to the art market. His work 'sun flowers' amounts also to employing many people who would not have otherwise work. The artist as someone who can generate employment by selecting a certain work which does seem to go beyond all proportions. You find the link to the youtube film about sunflowers thanks to Photini who has sent me this link.

Altogether it poses the critical question on how abusive is the art market and who is the abuser? He says at very least that he is ashamed of how he behaves and he does not know how he got sucked into the art market. Once in it and at his level, it does matter what position he takes. After his presentation yesterday at the University of Arts I am convinced that what he says has been thought through and is of substance, that is honest.



Dear Hatto,

I agree about his honesty and all, but capitalism brings everyone into the illusion. talk soon!


3. November 2015

Dear Eleftheria,

About your criticism of Ai Weiwei, Andre Mourois said illusions are necessary to exist at all, and Foucault advised that we should take away the illusions, but leaves those illusions which things need to exist.

Whatever is implied with the term 'Capitalism', I have great difficulties to understand what you mean by that. It is such a general term which covers everything and nothing. Admittedly, the term triggers of an immediate moral condemnation of anyone considered to be working for Capitalism or of having been sucked into its illusionary business world. Even Saskia Sassen stated in her lecture given in Athens, that one should not condemn the entire business world; rather it is important to distinguish between corporations which are accountable and transparent, which contribute to the economy, and those corporations which have gone global and are in need to be condemned in the way they conduct business, VW just an example. Saskia Sassen explained in her lecture held in Athens that global corporations tend to invade local spaces and thereby transform cities by destroying local identities. To describe what they do, she uses the term 'corporate parking'. It implies virtual money earned in the sizzling heights of hedge fonds speculations is used to buy up real estate but the curious thing is that these buildings are not used. Rather they stay empty. A lot of this kind of use of real estate standing simply around marks nowadays many cities. They serve merely the purpose to park the virtual money earned through speculation and which stands to gain in real value by acquiring real estate. (See Rethinking the Greek crisis by Saskia Sassen)

It may be this anonymous power of Capital which creates so much fear since these huge sums of money being shifted around by the push of the botton have a virtual power to which people add more power with their projections. 

Ai Weiwei touches upon a special value chain by saying poor people sell things at flee markets without realizing these items have a real i.e. huge value much greater than what they trade them in for. This other value he preserves in his art works by retaining traces of the past. These traces were wiped out by the Cultural Revolution of Mao. Thus he has a modern concept of cultural heritage while demonstrating through simple things like the sunflower seeds where art and real work, creativity and productivity can merge.



 Kommentar by Anka Landtau

 Comments by Anka Landtau


Lieber Hatto,

vielen Dank für die Berichterstattung aus Berlin. Es macht mich wieder nachdenklich. Du erinnerst dich sicherlich, dass ich 2012 zum S-H-KulturSommer, als China auf dem Programm stand, dieses Märchen nach Andersen "Die chinesische Nachtigall" zu Ai Wei-Wei geschrieben habe, und die Ausstellung nach Zeitungsartikeln entwickelt, weil ich eigentlich gar nichts von China wusste. Ich denke, ich habe es dir geschickt. Bei meiner Recherche und dem Nachdenken über Ai habe ich den Eindruck gewonnen, dass dieser Künstler den westlichen Kunstmarkt am Nasenring durch die Manege führt, und dass der Westen diesen Künstler als Stachel gegen China einsetzt, und ihn damit seinerseits zum Tanzbären macht, den Chinas Machtapparat sich dann schnappt, um ihm etwas vorzuwerfen, was im Wertesystem des Westens auch nicht erlaubt ist. Mir schien, Ai Wei-Wei hatte gar nicht im Griff, was für ein Spielball zwischen Macht und Markt er geworden war, indem er mit beiden nur spielen wollte. Einerseits bin ich innerlich sehr auf Distanz gegangen zu diesem Künstler, weil er so haarscharf auf dem Zeitgeist surft. Andererseits fasziniert mich natürlich diese Wucht der Riesenwelle, auf der er sich so lange halten kann. Er sagt wirklich etwas aus über uns in unserer Zeit, über die unterschiedlichen Kulturen in unserer Welt, aber auch über die kapitalistische Eroberung der Weltkultur in Verbindung mit Wissenschaft, Industrie, Markt und Macht. Ich verstehe, dass er sich schämt.

Im Grunde steckt Ai WeiWei in einem Dilemma fest, dass immer größer wird, weil nichts mehr die Realität abzubilden scheint trotz der vielen Fotos. Das ist ein extrem spannender Prozess zwischen Kunst, Propaganda und Menschsein.

Herzlichen Gruß



Dear Hatto,

Thanks for reporting from Berlin. It makes me again thoughtful. Definitely you remember, when I wrote for the SH-cultural summer programm in 2012 with China as theme, this fairy tale after Andersen's "The Chinese Nightingale" about Ai Wei-Wei, and developed the exhibition according to newspaper articles, because I actually did know anything about China. I think I sent it to you. In my research and thinking about Ai I have gained the impression that this artist leads the Western art market by the nose around in the ring, and that the West uses this artist to sting China. Altogether it makes him on the one hand into a dancing bear who is snapped then by the China's power structure whenever it is possible to accuse him of something which is not allowed in the value system of the West. It seemed to me, Ai Wei Wei had no grip on what he had become, namely a pawn between power and market insofar he just wanted to play with both. On the one hand I distanced myself inwardly very much from this artist because he surfs so narrowly on the zeitgeist. On the other hand, of course, I am fascinated by this force of the tidal wave on which he can keep himself for such a long time. He really says something about us in our time, about the different cultures in our world, but also about the capitalist conquest of the world culture in combination with science, industry, market and power. I understand that he is ashamed.

Basically he got stuck in a dilemma which seems to get bigger and bigger, since nothing seems anymore to represent reality despite of all the photos. That is an extremely interesting process between art, propaganda and human beings.


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