Ai Weiwei on the Coronavirus, China, and Art's New Role

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Ai Weiwei is not shy about tackling the big issues. Despite winning international acclaim for his interdisciplinary, boundary-pushing art, the Chinese-born artist is better known in some circles for his activism—though in his estimation, the two are inextricably linked. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak varying degrees of havoc around the globe, Ai has increasingly turned his attention toward how the illness is exposing the failures of governments and aggravating the geopolitical fault lines between world powers.

Although China, where the outbreak began in December 2019, seems to have contained the virus sufficiently to begin easing its way back to some kind of normalcy, serious questions remain about how transparent Xi Jinping's regime has been about the disease. After being detained, beaten, and surveilled by party officials in 2011 in response to his investigative work, Ai knows better than most how the tentacles of China's authoritarian government can accost citizens willing to criticize the state. He believes that here, too, the bureaucracy's unwillingness to admit its own errors has created disastrous consequences for others—this time, the world over. But he also believes that leading Western nations, especially the United States, bear some of the blame for being too accommodating of China for too long, all in pursuit of profit.

This week on the podcast, Ai Weiwei calls in from Cambridge, UK, where he is safely ensconced with his son and girlfriend, to discuss the pandemic, its effects on global politics, and how artists can contribute to a world in turmoil.

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