The following interview was conducted with Lee Ambrozy, a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese Art History and Archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She served as editor and translator of Ai Weiwei’s Blog (MIT Press, 2011) and was the former editor of Artforum Magazine’s Chinese language website. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Yishu, ArtAsiaPacific, and Art Margins. She has a MA degree in Art History from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and is a graduate of Oberlin College. Her current research examines urbanism, material and visual culture from the late Tang through Song dynasties.
– Atticus Ignelzi, Ani Nagesha, and Qiong Wu
Atticus Ignelzi & Ani Nagesha & Qiong Wu: How would you describe Ai Weiwei’s blog and its relationship to his art?
Lee Ambrozy: The blog is a reflection of the artist’s politics, and even today his art is not always political. If you consider shaping public opinion to be art, then you might consider the blog and his subsequent work on social media platforms to be an artwork.
The blog book captures a unique turning point for the artist wherein politics and activism became an important motivation in his art practice. His earlier artworks are not expressly political, but after the Sichuan earthquake (documented in his blog) and his imprisonment, politics became more transparent in his artwork.
AI & AN & QW: Which aspects of Weiwei’s blog were perceived as disruptive by the Chinese government and why? Why was it removed from the internet?
LA: His work helping to organize grassroots activism in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake was especially unwelcome by authorities. Not only were Sichuanese official deeply worried about it, the central authorities were uncomfortable with the counter-narratives he was putting together through documentary films. You should be able to find these online. The fact that the blog was so easily accessible nation-wide, and was shared widely on the Internet also made it more threatening. But you need to remember, this was in the day before Weibo and Weixin, Sina blogs were an important way to share information.
AI & AN & QW: How has Weiwei respond to the censorship of his writings?
LA: Since his blow to the head in Sichuan, he doesn’t write long essays or articles, but prefers to use Twitter or tell stories with images on Instagram. He had cited several times that the headaches he constantly had made it difficult for him to focus on longer essays. For many months before the blog was censored permanently, he was fully aware that the threat was imminent. When it was finally shut down, it was not surprising to anyone, not the artist, or his public. You could interpret his response to the censorship of his writing as a migration to platforms that are beyond the control of the Chinese government (Twitter, Instagram).
AI & AN & QW: What are some broader impacts—whether social, political, cultural, etc.—of censoring Weiwei’s blog?
LA: The shut down and censoring of his blog, and then his arrest and illegal imprisonment/detainment were a clear message to the community he had built around him. Artists and intellectuals knew that he had pushed it too far, and in that sense he had set new limits for this community.
AI & AN & QW: What does the blog’s censorship reveal about the Chinese authorities?
LA: The blog’s censorship reveals that the Chinese authorities have a long way to go before learning to tolerate open criticism of their policies.
AI & AN & QW: What is the current state of censorship in China?
LA: The new president of China, Xi Jinping, is much less tolerant of freedom of press, so speaking on a general level, censorship is more common and more restrictive than in the days when Ai Weiwei was blogging. There is not only censorship of the television and printed press, but of all social media users across all media. In this regard, the entire country has taken a giant step backwards in terms of civil liberties. This is paradoxical seeing that the internet has brought Chinese people closer to the “outside world” than ever before, and that almost all of the hundreds of millions internet users in China are entirely aware that they are prohibited from accessing information that is readily available to people around the globe, perhaps save of North Korea. How are people convinced that withholding information is in their best interest? My best answer would be government-sponsored patriotism that takes xenophobia “national humiliation” as its foundation.
AI & AN & QW: How did you become interested in translating the blog into English? Why did you feel that it was an important endeavor?
LA: The blog translation took more than two years to complete, there was lots of work to do in editing the original texts, and choosing entries that would create a snapshot picture of the blog itself, which was much greater than what you see here, and also reflect what was happening in China at that moment.
My interest in translating the blog was mostly in response to American critics of China, or to the general American public opinion that Chinese people are unable to criticize their own country. It was refreshing to see someone so intuitively connected to Beijing be able to formulate opinions on the policies that came out of that city. It was my hope that the book would be an insightful, native critique of contemporary China.
AI & AN & QW: What process did you use to translate the blog? What was your general experience?
LA: My translation process is a long one, first reading everything carefully, then choosing which pieces to translate. Some of the entries were repetitive, or on similar subjects, in that case I would focus on a piece that was longer and more inclusive of the whole picture. Some pieces, especially the earlier entries, were written as essays on architecture, space, or the like.
Ai Weiwei’s prose style is filled with allusion and inside jokes, vibrant language that evokes very specific ideas for a native reader. That made the translation process challenging. Thus, as I translated, I met often with Weiwei to discuss how to best bring some of his ideas into the English language. He is also an English speaker, so it was easy to get his feedback.
AI & AN & QW: Did you have a chance to speak or meet with Weiwei during or after the process of translating his blog?
LA: Yes, we worked together closely during the translation process of his blog.
AI & AN & QW: What has the public response been to your translation of the blog?
LA: The book was released just as he was detained. This was a shocking turn of events. The public response has been good. My English translation was used to make German, Italian, and Korean versions, so I’m happy that it has gotten good use. In putting together the book, I hoped that it would be most useful for students and in the classroom.