Art Greg Hilty on Ai Weiwei

On 3 April 2011, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained by the Chinese authorities. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “Ai was arrested under investigation for alleged economic crimes”. On the occasion of Ai Weiwei new show ‘Roots’ at Lisson Gallery, Thierry Somers, spoke with the curatorial director of the gallery, Greg Hilty, on the emotional support they gave him in this dark episode of his life.

200%: Before we are going to talk about the subject matter I would like to ask you something about the tree works in the show. Ai Weiwei visited Trancoso in the east of Brazil to locate roots and trunks from the endangered Pequi Vinagreiro tree which were cast into monumental sculptural works. How did he make the works?
Greg Hilty: Weiwei found fragments of wood that had either been cut down or fallen down. He collected them and knocked them together into rough tree-like forms. He brought his expert carpenters from China who used to make joinery and carpentry according to ancient traditions and he fused different fragments to make these shapes. They actually don’t look like trees, but like beasts or mythological creatures. He was looking for something hybrid between the plant world, the animal world and the human world. Together with his gallery in Berlin, Neugerriemschneider, we worked very closely with Weiwei on these works. They’re showing some of the works in Berlin and simultaneously we are showing a whole series here in London.

200%: How long have you known Ai Weiwei?
GH: I have known him for a decade. Ten years ago I met him for five minutes at an exhibition opening in Beijing. A couple of months later, I returned and met him for an hour. We have had more and more longer conversations ever since. We started working with Ai Weiwei at the end of 2010. Our first exhibition in London was in 2011. It was a month after he was arrested at Beijing airport when he was traveling to Hong Kong. He was detained for 81 days. The show took on a different resonance. It was a quite classic exhibition of his coloured vases and some of his works in wood and marble. Due to the circumstances the show was angled under a political spotlight.

200%: How did you support him as a gallery when he was imprisoned?
GH: On many levels. We supported Weiwei by keeping him in the public eye. At that time it was important to have a lot of attention on the show and who knows if it made an impact on the Chinese authorities. I think it’s likely that the attention that he received internationally through the representation of his views, the protests demanding his release and through the presence of his art helped to make them [the Chinese authorities] realise that this is a figure who had international standing and importance, and this might have contributed in him being freed. What we do for his art, in my view, is good for him as a person and an activist. The two things are intimately tied together.

In my view Weiwei is simultaneously a great artist and a hugely influential activist and they’re not the same thing. The only thing that is the same is that his art is about openness, curiosity, inclusivity, imagination, intuition and moving forward into something positive. As a person, as a citizen of the world he wants the same. Where there are forces that repress that spirit, restrict freedom of speech, imprison people so that they can’t communicate with their families, travel or engage with the world then he’s going to talk about it.

200%: Could you expand on how you emotionally supported him?
GH: Weiwei is a very strong person and human being. He sat in a room that is represented in the work ‘S.A.C.R.E.D’ which he made when he came out of imprisonment. He didn’t know where he was, what his family was doing, if he would ever leave. He had the same routine every day and two guards watched him all the time. People have suffered worst, he has been clear about that, but it was a mental torture and a period of uncertainty but he kept strong. What he seeks from his gallery is opportunity, engagement, support and understanding.

I think it’s worth saying that I personally and many of my colleagues in the gallery have a huge respect for him as a person, as a cultural and political figure that calls on us to support him beyond maybe normal professional habits. We try to attend his exhibitions or his film screenings about refugees. We have been active in various ways to secure platforms for him to do projects that are not directly related to his art. On a human level, I think it’s important for me, as one of his main contacts here at the gallery, to really not put that side of his life on the side and carry on with the artwork. They are intimately connected with each other and we understand how much it means to him.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Images: Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., installation shots of ‘Roots’ at Lisson Gallery (Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio, Lisson Gallery and neugerremschneider), Tate Modern calls for the release of Ai Weiwei in 2011.

Roots by Ai Weiwei at Lisson Gallery London, until 2 November 2019