May 12 this year marked the 13th anniversary of the May 12 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan. Our correspondent Sun Cheng interviewed Ai Weiwei, an artist who investigated the list of students who died in the earthquake, about a group art practice he launched on the social media “Clubhouse” on the 13th anniversary of May 12th, called He talked about a group art practice called “Commemoration”, which he started on the 13th anniversary of May 12, and his views on life.
Reporter: Hello, I’d like you to first introduce this activity, how long did it last? What is the general situation?
Ai Weiwei: First of all, I would like to introduce the background of the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, in which a large number of school buildings collapsed and 5,335 students were killed. The Chinese government has not actually made the whole situation public. We began to ask how many students had died, and we wanted to investigate what is commonly known as the quality of school construction, or “tofu-dreg construction”. So, as a result of our investigation, we were able to obtain the names, birthdays, classes and home addresses of 5,197 students. These names were taken by a team of ours, called the “Citizen Survey” team. At that time, I had a lot of conflicts with the Chinese government because our survey was sensitive information in the eyes of the government, and the social movement we were doing was certainly something they didn’t like. But the political environment wasn’t as tough as it is today, so we finished the survey and did a lot of reporting on it.
Every year after that, we continued to commemorate the May 12 earthquake, and we had a slogan called “Respect Life, Refuse to Forget”, which we still use today. In fact, not only authoritarian countries, but also human beings have the common problem of not knowing the true meaning of life, and of constantly forgetting, or deliberately forgetting, or erasing some disasters, such as today’s epidemic, and we have seen that China has never released the real figures of how many people have died. Why do I say there are no real figures? Because the real number has to be based on the name, the gender, the birthday of each individual, because they are one life, right? One life is one world, right? That’s what Buddhism means when it says “one flower, one world”.
That’s why we do such an activity, and it’s ongoing. For thirteen years, we have been doing various activities, in my artworks and on the Internet, to remind people that there is no end to this matter. One of the basic concepts of no closure is that the living are part of the dead, and the dead are part of the living. Life and death are closely related, and we are not talking about a choice, but about a responsibility we have to life to honor the dead. Because the dead are a part of us, and when a part of us dies, it is a part of us that dies in a humanitarian sense. So we saw this possibility in the Clubhouse, where, for the first time, Chinese people from all over the world gathered to recite this name. Because of the 24-hour chanting, from April 4, the Qingming Festival, to today, May 12, the earthquake that happened two or three hours ago, we will stop the chanting activity at 12:00 this night. That’s 39 days and 936 hours of continuous chanting, with one name rotating every four seconds. I made a website for this purpose and organized Chinese people from all over the world to participate, because nowadays Chinese people are distributed in all time zones, so it is technically possible for this project to undertake different time zones for different hours of recitation. The general background is this: today is already the last few hours. It should be until 6 p.m. Berlin time today. I was in Portugal, and at 5 p.m. Portuguese time, the project ended, and we read for 39 days and 936 hours.
Reporter: How many times was the list read out over such a long period of time?
Ai Weiwei: In such a long time, it took 5 hours, 48 minutes and 24 seconds to read out the list once. 39 days, we counted yesterday, we read out the list 161 times in a cycle.
Reporter: I see. How many people have participated in this activity?
If you see any kind of discussion on the Elite Club, no matter what the issue is, whether it’s gossip or politics or whatever, hundreds or thousands of people will gather. I personally have the highest number of followers among the Chinese, probably at least 70,000. But among the ones we read, sometimes there is no one in the room, just two admins, which is often the case. We have set up a total of 41 administrators. These 41 administrators in three time zones, European time zone, Beijing time zone and the U.S. Eastern time zone, so that just about all the time periods can be covered.
Reporter: I understand. One more question: Were there any interruptions during the process?
Ai Weiwei: There were people who came up to interfere, yelled twice and then left, or came up to say something against it, because we opened a group at the same time, and when we discussed the background of the event and some related matters, people would often come up to disrupt it. There are even people who open groups, two groups that are dedicated to scolding us for this (activity). However, many people support us again. The Elite Club is like a farmer’s market, a mess, of course, all kinds of opinions, “fifty cents” is also a lot.
Reporter: I understand. In your opinion, what is the significance of holding such an event?
Ai Weiwei: The only meaning is to remind ourselves, so that we can use our own behavior to reflect our value judgment on a matter. Because too often in modern society people forget to take action. A small action is important because everyone is educated and seems to have their own opinions about right and wrong, right and wrong, and ethics, but very few people will put them into action. This is an art project, just a chance for us to use the “Elite Club” technology platform and give ourselves a chance to revisit some of our own ideas, but at the same time it is actually an art practice. The meaning of artistic practice is twofold: one is the participation of everyone, and the other is the practice itself is the meaning. Meaning emerges from practice, and it is meaningless to talk about meaning without participation in this practice, because there are too many disasters in this world and death is constant. So, we are not saying that we have to have some kind of moral superiority, but that if we do not practice, we become part of the moral corruption.
Reporter: Thank you. One last question, will there be any more activities of this form in the future? We see that the “Elite Club” is a new form of communication.
Ai Weiwei: For us, there is neither before nor after, we are part of a large natural ecology that has no beginning and no end. So, for example, we always have things on the Internet, and we have different links. We at the Elite Club, because it’s a complete project, it ends at the time I just told you, which is 5:00 p.m. (European time), 6:00 p.m. in Berlin. But we have a rolling list of websites that will keep rolling, permanently, and anyone who wants to go in and open a room and read by themselves can do so. Someone opened a separate one to read, and he read all 26 units, that is, the complete (list) of 5 hours and 48 minutes, all in one breath. It is a seed, right, and the seed may come to life or die, this thing all depends on the heart and the possibility of human behavior.