KARMA: An Interview Between Ai Weiwei & Yu Bogong
This post is also available in: 简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified)) English
Ai Weiwei = Ai
Yu Bogong = Yu
Edited by Ai Weiwei and Xie Wenyue
Ai: When did you start to create these works?
Yu: I started to create with silk from 1996 to 1999 and I have been working on installations, sculptures and silk items from 2002 to 2007.
Ai: So it has already been ten years. Is this your first solo exhibition?
Yu: This is actually my second solo show.
Ai: Where was the first one held?
Yu: At Gulao Gallery in Beijing.
Ai: Have you thought of the title for this show?
Yu: Not yet.
Ai: Could you please introduce yourself first? Things like your year of birth and what you’ve been up to before and after coming to Beijing?
Yu: I was born in 1970 in Sunitezuo Qi (Tribe) of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region where I finished primary school education. I then moved to the northeast and, after graduating from senior high school in 1990, I worked in Shenyang from 1992 to 1994. In spring 1995, I went to Yuan Ming Garden, an artists’ village in Beijing, where I stayed for about six months. I was employed again after that for three or four years during which I created some works with silk. My recent works include installations and sculptures.
Ai: So you have never been professionally trained.
Yu: That’s right.
Ai: What prompted you into doing all these? What was on your mind?
Yu: I took to drawing in primary school and I learnt about painting in senior high. I did apply for several art schools but two years later I lost interest in professional training and gave up.
Ai: Why did you lose interest?
Yu: The college education was different from what I had expected.
Ai: What was your expectation?
Yu: I thought art should be more liberal.
Ai: What do you mean by “liberal”?
Yu: By “liberal”, I mean I can feel free to explore art to my heart’s content.
Ai: So that’s quite a personal concern. Why are you in Beijing?
Yu: I used to go to Luxun Academy of Fine Arts for lectures in 1993. There, I learnt about the art community. I thought of going to Yuan Ming Garden as I had some friends there. So I went there in spring 1995. I did some canvas painting and met many artists there. That’s how I got started with artistic theories.
Ai: Your works have very extensive reach indeed. They demonstrate your special and personal interest and focal points. Your artistic approaches are very unique. Your personal concerns have come together to form a one-of-a-kind personal style in spite of the fact that they all have specific references to certain aspirations, as in the case of The Cinema （Dian Ying Yuan） or A Pair of Shoes （Yi Shuang Xie）. What is the name for this piece?
Yu: “Two Little Devils”（Liang Ge Xiao Mo Gui）
Ai: Yes, indeed. There are two devils, a male and a female. There are also feces with measurement marks and a fly, all made of individualized materials with unique methods. Most of these are handmade, so they also speak a personal language. Your work is rare in today’s art community. We can easily identify the origin for most of the artworks in the market, or at least they fit into an existing genre or go with a particular trend. However, there is always something about your works that fits nowhere or that is exclusively introspective. How do you explain that?
Yu: I believe that introspection concerns one’s characters since individuality directly affects the way you think and comprehend. With a certain amount of knowledge and experience in a particular field of interest, you will be able to think and comprehend appropriately and freely to create a world of your own.
We need such things in artistic creation.
Ai: To be more specific, what are the things we need?
Yu: Well, you need to further explore your field of interest.
Ai: Your works are seldom optimistic, nor pessimistic. They are humorous to a certain extent with certain religious allusions. How do you understand religion?
Yu: Religion is really about the perception of a certain school of thoughts. It is inclusive, but is also largely dependent on your own understanding.
Ai: Why is it dependent on your own understanding? What kind of experience, in your view, qualifies as religious experience? Do you have such experience in your daily life?
Yu: The first thing coming into my mind is a trip to Inner Mongolia. In the depth of the untraversed inland, we saw rolling hills, the serene sky and low-lying clouds. We believed that the spirits were somewhere around but that was just a vaguely intuitive feeling.
Ai: How do you view the nature and the sceneries? Have you ever been out in the wilderness frequently?
Yu: I have. Once I went to a remote commune with a friend of my father’s, who is a carpenter and who was on a mission to repair furniture for a local. After supper, we walked home on a stretch of snow for about three or four hours. There were stars in the sky and snow on the ground and the two of us were the only people out on the road. We felt so close to nature.
Ai: Could you give a brief account of your parents?
Yu: My father is a vet, who treats ailing animals, and my mother is a housewife.
Ai: A vet on the farm?
Yu: That’s right.
Ai: A vet is frequently called upon. Have you ever seen him work on a house call? Did he work his arm into a horse’s anus and unclog the passage?
Yu: I have actually seen my father treating a horse, which was suffering from a cold. My father lit up a piece of cotton cloth and sent the smoke into the horse’s nostrils to drive away the cold.
Ai: Did it work?
Yu: Yes, it certainly did.
Ai: Did you actually see it?
Yu: Yes, I did.
Ai: What did you see?
Yu: I saw water droplets hanging from the horse’s nostrils.
Ai: I guess it will be more effective on a human.
Ai: Are your parents still in living Inner Mongolia?
Yu: They both passed away.
Ai: How old were you when your parents passed away?
Yu: I was fourteen when my father died and my mother died three years later.
Ai: How did they happen?
Yu: My father died of heart attack and my mother was killed in a car accident.
Ai: It must have been hard.
Yu: It was. Many things changed, including the environment I live in. On the other hand, I took the changes surprisingly well as I somehow believed that I could make it through.
Ai: You wouldn’t be able to make a living on you own at seventeen. What did you live on?
Yu: I received an allowance from my father’s former employer until I completed my senior high study.
Ai: What happened after that?
Yu: My little sister was already working and I also left town for work.
Ai: How much were you paid at that time?
Yu: In Shenyang, I designed signs and billboards for an advertisement company and I was paid RMB 500 a month.
Ai When was it?
Yu: It was in 1993.
Ai: Well, that’s a pretty good salary for 1993.
Yu: It was not bad.
Ai: What did you do after coming to Beijing?
Yu: I spent six months painting in Yuan Ming Garden.
Ai: When was that?
Yu: It was in 1995.
Ai: So that was shortly before the local government started to drive away all artists there.
Ai: How did it happen?
Yu: Somehow the artists were no longer allowed to live there.
Ai: How was the order enforced?
Yu: The artists were simply asked to move away.
Ai: Did it happen to you?
Yu: No. I already left because I had run out of money and took up a job in photography.
Ai: So you moved out of Yuan Ming Garden.
Yu: Yes, the employer provided housing.
Ai: You started to work with wood in 1996. Could you describe your early works one by one?
Yu: Actually I worked with silk first.
Ai: Why did you choose silk?
Yu: Silk is warm, soft and gorgeous. There is always a special bound between silk and the Chinese tradition. From raising silkworms all the way to the finished products, the production of silk is very complicated. I created something unimaginable in real life using this warm, soft and gorgeous material.
Ai: What is unimaginable in real life?
Yu: For example, feces made of silk.
Ai: Isn’t it one of the most common things in reality?
Yu: It is.
Ai: But you said that you created something unimaginable in reality. Why did you choose feces and fly? I guess such feces can only be found in the wilderness of Inner Mongolia.
Yu: What I mean by “unimaginable” is that people seldom think of silk and feces as related in real-life. The contrast between the meaning carried by the material and the real-life object is simply overwhelming.
Ai: What about the shoes?
Yu: Military footwear bears a memory of my childhood. I have re-created these shoes with white silk. The color indicates the history of the shoes as a classic experience mixed with unspeakable memories and feelings in those days.
Ai: How about that wooden sculpture with a black top?
Yu: They are speakers on the sculpture. I carved different types of fruits out of wood and turned them into loudspeakers.
Ai: And the blue one?
Yu: That’s a sandbox for psychological test.
Ai: Why is there an aboriginal shelf? Is it for hanging things?
Yu: Not really.
Ai: Is this supposed to be a setting?
Yu: It is a setting for psychological test in which the participants are allowed to make use of the properties on the shelf in a game of sandplay.
Ai: What is the nearby shelf for?
Yu: This is where you store the properties needed for the psychological test, including an egg, a bowl, a figure of Buddha, a sandglass, a flashlight, a small plane along with other daily articles.
Ai: Do you believe in such mysterious symbols?
Yu: Yes, I do.
Ai: What do you think of allusion?
Yu: An allusion coincides with your feelings in a given context. For example, a burning candle in a dim surrounding may be indicative of certain anticipation.
Ai: It may be more appropriate to showcase your inner world by allusions.
Yu: That’s right. When put in a give context, namely an exclusive time/space, this piece of work enables the participants to reproduce their inner world with a variety of properties and signs. The entire process helps demonstrate one’s psychological reality.
Ai: Games are always a real world that is disseminated and then pieced together. Games provide a contextual language. There is substantially a set rule in your work governing the usage of language signs and all the items (such as a mirror, a TV set or a loud speaker) as well as their respective positions in the setting. I’d like to have your view concerning the semiological rules.
Yu: The meaning carried by a sign is related to certain experience. The same sign may be interpreted differently by people with different experience. The signs and positions defined in this work are mainly based on my personal experience.
Ai: Is it necessary to develop your own semiological system if you want to have or build up a world of your own?
Yu: I think so.
Ai: Without personal signs, there won’t be an exclusively owned world with an ego.
Yu: That’s right.
Ai: Are you building your own world?
Yu: Yes, I am.
Ai: What kind of world is it?
Yu: I feel that it is a world of personal signs which explains the “directivity” of your thoughts and provides “clues” in a more direct way.
Ai: Talking about the directivity and the clues, are they considered equally important? Why is it necessary to explain the directivity of thoughts and provide clues? How do directivity and the clues come into being?
Yu: I believe that the directivity and the clues of one person, if further improved, can be felt by others.
Ai: It is necessary for them to be felt?
Yu: It depends.
Ai: Do you think a sign must take a concrete form? A special element should take a special position. All signs should be part of a ritual because they each have an identity. What is the relationship between the signs?
Yu: I believe that only in a given context will these signs be expressively meaningful.
Ai: They become more established than before, or they have taken shape.
Yu: I understand that there has to be a process for the signs to be more established.
Ai: What is “thinking of soul”? Is the soul able to do any thinking?
Yu: Yes, of course.
Ai: How does a process of thinking conclude? Do you create the sign language to complete your thinking or do you make them to inspire your thinking?
Yu: I personally feel that thinking happens at the earliest stage. In the process of thinking, and through repeated adjustments, the gist of any piece of work is finalized and you become more certain of what you want to achieve in the first place.
Ai: What happens after that?
Yu: The individual signs may surface.
Ai: And what comes next?
Yu: Your own thinking and perception will form your own clues.
Ai: These clues only again lead to other thoughts, don’t they?
Yu: But they also lead to the consummation of your perception of the world.
Ai: Will such consummation ever be within our reach? Are we just seeing the segments of the entirety or are we segments ourselves?
Yu: We are the segments.
Ai: I somehow like these two little devils. They are energetic, rebellious, but not hostile. However, they are not to be ignored. What is your inspiration for the work?
Yu: These two little devils represent the two antagonistic aspects of a human being. Everyone has one of them on display and the other in disguise. These two aspects are indeed different.
Ai: How are they different?
Yu: Everyone has good and evil in him, which is undeniable.