Ai Weiwei talks about art, his health and life out of prison


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Ai Weiwei is in a chatty mood. It’s early Friday morning in Beijing and he’s agreed to talk by phone about his artwork, specifically his touring installation ‘Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads’ that opens Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But this is no ordinary art conversation. Until recently, Ai was a prolific Internet activist who advocated for free speech and human rights. In April, Chinese officials threw the artist in jail, where he languished for 81 days before being released on bail in June. He says the terms of his release forbid him from talking about his legal case.


As his colleagues know all too well, it’s not easy keeping Ai quiet. Our chat with the outspoken artist lasted nearly 30 minutes and touched on his creative side, health situation and even his recent return to Twitter.

We have the full conversation with Ai on but here’s a sampling of what he said.

Ai describes his health as generally good, though he is still gaining back the weight that he lost in prison. The artist says he lost about 12 kilograms while in detention and has gained back three since his release.

More troubling, he says, is the condition of his head. In 2009, Ai underwent brain surgery after suffering a beating at the hands of police. His recent stint in detention didn’t help matters and he says that he has problems focusing on tasks for extended periods.

‘I cannot do long reading... [and] I cannot concentrate very well. But maybe that will be nice for an artist,’ he says.

Ai won’t be able to attend the Saturday opening of ‘Circle’ at LACMA since he is confined to Beijing as part of his bail arrangement. ‘Circle’ features large-scale statues of the Chinese zodiac and is inspired by those at China’s Yuanming Yuan palace, which was pillaged by Western military forces in 1860.


‘It’s about the future and the past, and how China is looked at today and how it looks at itself,’ explains Ai. ‘It has many, many different layers -- is it art or not art, and to what degree?’

Ai says that his time in prison changed him as an artist: ‘Artists are always in the practice of individual expression. My condition is changing all the time. And I’m trying to be honest to my condition.’

Read our full conversation with Ai Weiwei, with comments from those who know and work with him.


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-- David Ng