Present in the Heart—念念 CommemorationInterviews
Present in the Heart:
A Conversation with Ai Weiwei about “念念—Commemoration”
Art is a social practice that helps people locate their truth. —Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei’s latest project, “Commemoration,” unfolded on the social media network Clubhouse, an app designed to facilitate real-time conversation without video. The concept was incredibly pure—to gather people from around the world to recite and listen to the names of the 5,197 schoolchildren who were killed in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, a magnitude 8.0 quake which struck western Sichuan province. This recitation lasted for 39 days without stop, 24 hours a day, from April 4 to May 12, 2021. April 4 is Tomb-Sweeping Day in China, a traditional holiday for remembering the dead, and May 12 marks the anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake.
During each person’s turn to read, 200 names were read. Anyone who joined Clubhouse could listen to these names and read them if they chose to. On a separate website (https://aiweiwei-niannian.com/), the list of names, presented in both Chinese and pinyin, scrolled up a dark screen in alphabetical order. The names—illuminated for four seconds by light and brought into shape by voice—rose out of the darkness, then continued to rise and disappeared. Listening felt like the rhythm of a boat being rowed across smooth water.
To read 200 names takes 13:20 minutes. A lot happens in the mind over the course of 13 minutes. Each child’s name contains its own meaning, its own set of images, and those flashed through my mind, like a firework display. The names created a vast landscape not just of concepts and images, but also of the hopes and dreams of the parents who named these children. I sensed the potential of their lives, the conditions of their deaths.
However, the external visual and sonic experience of the work is perhaps the least notable aspect to this piece. In “Commemoration,” Ai Weiwei accomplishes something I generally associate with listening to minimalist music or deep meditation—as one listened to or read the names, one became deeply aware of the texture and movement of one’s own mind and of the mind of whomever was reading. This internal awareness was an inextricable part of the work itself.
A defining characteristic of Weiwei’s work is that it asks us to be aware of human suffering, and to consider who we are in that context. To this end, this work allowed people to “locate their truth” in a remarkable way. The names of the dead became a medium in which we could not just locate our own truth, but feel its very texture. What I saw was that this truth is not a concrete external reality, but one that is dynamic and emotional; it is not some future goal, but something constantly unfolding in the present moment. It may, in fact, be nothing less than who we are. The names of the student victims and the readers of those names became one entity.
In addition to Ai Weiwei, whose interview I have posted below, I reached out to several of the participants to gather some of their experiences. The Chinese poet Yang Lian remarked “Reading these names again and again is like calling the ghosts of the dead children out of the darkness of the universe, calling them out of the great memory of the universe.” I had a similar feeling. As I read, I felt like I was calling attendance to a classroom of the night sky. The schoolchildren are like distant stars, present, but too far away to answer our calling. They form constellations by which we can guide the boat of our heart.
There was so much vulnerability in this piece. Sometimes a reader’s voice broke, and the reader started to cry. For that time, their emotional reality would become part of the names. One of the main readers, Han Kui, observed, “Some voices are full of images. Emotions are like water in a bottle. If the bottle is bumped or shaken, the water will undulate and fluctuate. But if the bottle is kept still, the water will remain completely still.” There was another reality too that was sublime: at times I felt myself disappear. I was just the names, and in this state, there wasn’t even an I to write this sentence.
Everyone I spoke to remarked on the transformative effect of reading the names. The translator Sun Rong wrote, “I think reciting these names is profoundly transforming me. These children are part of me. I am a part which didn’t die. So, I need to remember them and recite their names with a voice remembering who I am. Reading these names is making me a better person.” And perhaps this is one of the most powerful aspects of this project. There is no way we can bring these children back. But we can do something about the conditions of our world. Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to be deliberate about what it is that we choose to hold present in our heart.
Ian Boyden: It’s such a pleasure to talk with you. I’m fascinated by your current project of reading the student’s names on Clubhouse. Can we start with the name of this project: 念念, which you’ve translated as “Commemoration”? This is a very potent word in Chinese. For people who don’t speak Chinese, tell me what does 念念 (pronounced niànniàn) mean?
Ai Weiwei: Niànniàn means to read, but it also means to hold something in your mind. When we love someone, when we think of someone, they are in our mind—that’s niànniàn. When we long for them, we miss them—that’s niànniàn. It is such a beautiful word.
Ian: And it is often completed as the phrase 念念不忘 (niànniànbùwàng), translated as “always remember, never forget,” which you’ve also used often in relationship to the tragedy of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
Weiwei: Niànniàn is allied with thought, you think and you are reading these names inside of those thoughts. It is a verb. When we 念, there is a collision between a living person and a present situation—they crash together.
Ian: The Chinese character 念 is such an evocative image. At the bottom of the character is an image of the heart, and floating above the heart is the image for presence. The image of presence is an image of a mouth speaking. So 念 is the very image of what people are doing in your project, they are speaking the names of the dead, holding those names above their heart. The character 念 becomes a portrait of each reader.
Weiwei: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ian: A mouth opening above our heart.
Weiwei: The word 念 is the heart in the present.
Ian: I think it is so important to recognize what is present in the heart. What does it feel like? One severity of this project is that as I read these names, I can feel the fluctuation of my heart or mind, I can feel the quality of my own attention. You’ve used the word 念 in several of your pieces regarding the earthquake. It is clearly a very important concept for you.
Weiwei: In 2010, I made a piece titled “念” (English title, “Remembrance” https://www.5122018.com/rememberance.) that was also of people reading all the 5,196 names of these schoolchildren. And so to differentiate this piece, I just repeated the character 念, it became 念念. I didn’t want to use the same name, and at the same time I didn’t want to use another name.
Ian: “Remembrance” unfolded within China just two years after the earthquake, like a national grieving. Whereas “Remembrance” is global and it is unfolding 13 years later in the shadow of the pandemic. How would you compare these two pieces?
Weiwei: “Remembrance” was so beautiful. One name read by you, next by me, next by Fen, next by Han Kui. But, nobody knows who is reading each name.
Ian: Each reader remained anonymous. In a sense each person’s voice in “Remembrance” becomes all of our voices.
Weiwei: So beautiful.
Ian: I was reluctant to join another social media platform, but I’m so glad I joined Clubhouse to read and listen to these names. This is one of my favorite projects you’ve put together. After spending years reading these names to myself, it’s incredible to join in with people from all around the world reading the names of these students. It seems each social media platform presents a new opportunity for you, and you see their potential so quickly.
Ai Weiwei: I have been using social media for 16 years. It started in 2005. I realized as a Chinese, as a human, that we’ve never had the possibility to use a vehicle like this to speak out. Never in human history. Never. And, of course, now it's the 21st century. Technically this has become possible. It's a miracle. So for me, a Chinese then living in Beijing, this was a really amazing opportunity.
In 2005, was invited by Sina to start a blog. At that time, I didn't know how to type. I had never touched a computer. But they say you learn fast. And then in 2009, I joined Twitter—I use it to gather information and express my opinions. Twitter’s like the ocean. But, today it has become so noisy, the significance of the individual voice is hard to find.
Ian: What is it about Clubhouse that you find so attractive?
Weiwei: On February 3rd (2021) someone I don't know invited me to join Clubhouse. So I said I would take a look. I went in there and the human voice really attracted me. It was not their opinions I was attracted to, it was the feel of the human voice. It's such a new experience. We hear human voices all the time, but I never realized how identifiable each voice is. We all have this voice box. Somehow, it carries much more than we understand. The human voice is like a fingerprint, like a strand of DNA. It's just sound. And yet, as I listen, I can hear the effort, the emotion, and then I can kind of identify what kind of person they are from the way they talk. This experience is so abstract but so penetrating. It touches an indescribable condition.
Ian: I'm having a similar experience listening to people read the names. As I listen, I can feel the field of the reader’s attention, expanding and contracting. The quality of emotion that is being held by their voice.
Weiwei: I have never had an experience like this before. We often listen to someone to talk, but nothing this intense—the voice on Clubhouse is so clear and reveals or describes or reflects the human being. It is very much like an old-time radio, and it's also like a poetry reading.
Ian: Listening to these names, I feel that this is like listening to a long poem. It really has turned the whole list of names into a poem, a poem without a beginning or an ending.
Weiwei: The reading carries you into imagination because it's very limited information. And when information is limited, it has the quality of poetry. That limitation makes those few words more powerful. What we are facing in this world is too much reality. Information is not limited anymore.
Ian: And yet, within all this confusion, we can hear the voices of individuals. So much of our media is about reading, about the visual image. I wonder if a truer sense of the individual is really to be heard rather than seen.
Weiwei: Clubhouse has allowed for something to occur: I’ve never had a chance to see so many Chinese exist outside of China before, because in China, no Chinese exist even if they have 1.4 billion people. This is because when you have no voice, you do not exist. One party exists. People don’t exist. But here they suddenly exist.
Ian: What do you think the relationship is between having a voice and having a name?
Weiwei: This voiceless condition can only be conquered by individuals, and these individuals only have their own names. So that's why from the very beginning, I insisted on finding the names of all the children. Not just their names, but their birthday and which school they were killed in, what village they were living in, and the parents’ names. In the end we collected 5,197 names, recently one more was added to the list.
Ian: I remember when you first went to the earthquake, you fell silent. It was like you suddenly didn’t exist. It took many days, and then those first words on your blog: “Silence please. No clamor. Let the dust settle, let the dead rest” (Ai Weiwei’s blog, May 22, 2008). And you were back.
Weiwei: I was silent for about one week. The whole internet was asking "Why is Ai Weiwei silent?" Prior to that, I had been writing three articles a day. But I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was facing. I could not use the vocabulary from the mainstream social media or government propaganda. Not having words exerted this pressure, and I went to the site of the earthquake. I stood on the ruins to feel what was under my feet. What was under the ruins were the bodies of schoolchildren. The wind was blowing through me. I started shaking.
Ian: It seems one of the great difficulties is communicating this kind of experience. The experience of standing in the ruins. This has been a part of my own work, and it certainly has played a strong role in the writing of my poems for these children.
Weiwei: Clubhouse is really very much like some kind of ruin. You'll find things by surprise. There’s no order. It's disorder. Serious discussion, arguments, nonsense. There are all kinds of things on Clubhouse. But it’s also fun like a flea market. Of course, there are a lot of second-hand opinions. They are all sincere, but you rarely find a real opinion because people want to be rational and politically correct.
Ian: Tell me how you came to this idea to read the names on Clubhouse.
Weiwei: I was listening and listening. I asked myself, "It's such a wonderful media platform, but how can we extend it to do something we share, something that has more mental, physical importance for the human soul. There’s this slogan: “Respect life, refuse to forget.” It appears simple, but it's not so simple. And I don't know how many people understand what it means to respect life. And also, I think people are purposely trying to forget.
Ian: What does forgetting achieve?
Weiwei: To not forget would put them in a position of moral accountability where they bear responsibility. I think this is really a problem in today’s modern society. In the West, I know of these people who want to be benefited by the broader so-called commonwealth, but at the same time they want to be totally disassociated from their either moral, political, or personal responsibility to do the right thing.
Ian: Over and over, for you the antidote to forgetting is creating some sort of action that speaks directly to our humanity, especially those who have lost their voice. In your own words, “A small act is worth a million thoughts.”
Weiwei: To act. To act is so difficult. So I said, "Maybe we should set up a practice here on Clubhouse to carry on what we have been doing since 2008. These are actions about humanity, about memory, about facing reality and our history. To act is so important. You might take the smallest effort, like I call you and we record the conversation. Or you write so many poems about these students. They’re beautiful. They’re beyond description. It's not something I can describe because it never happened before. And also what you’ve done is beyond description because not many people are capable of having the same kind of feeling and the understanding and to use the language. It's not easy.
Ian: The earthquake created a condition that is strangely also a gift. That sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the gifts is that it helped you locate your voice. It reorganized your voice. And because of your efforts, I have also located and reorganized my voice.
Weiwei: Well, not exactly like that. We had an earthquake, but today we have a much bigger pandemic. But who has found their voice? I don't see any meaningful writing about the pandemic. There are so many scholars, writers. They are out there. We are facing the crisis we never had before. And it is a crisis of humanity, and that challenges the wellbeing of a human society. That is unpredictably devastating and harsh, and keeps lasting and repeating. You see, we lost our voice.
Ian: We are all standing on the ruins of the pandemic. Over three million people are dead worldwide. And a shattered humanity. I believe we've lost our voice, yes.
Weiwei: We lost our voice. Why have we lost our voice? We are not capable. We're not prepared. We don’t have the emotions, or knowledge, or intelligence to prepare us to understand humanity under such conditions. To understand our human positions in this world is very fragile. It's quite fragile. And, politically, it's extremely fragile. I just read an article in The Guardian that over 130 nations have not yet seen a dose of the vaccine. But the US has enough of the vaccine for three times their population.
Ian: In my conversations with Woeser, we have talked about how much the virus has exposed the really broken parts of our humanity. It has revealed the selfish nature of people and institutions and governments at this time in history.
Weiwei: It is as powerful as poetry. The virus describes this world much better than many thousands of words. The US, England, and Israel—they all get covered. That's all. If you were to show this map of what countries got vaccinated first to a three-year old, they would understand. This is a very real map of our human political society. And think about all the media and all the people, all the politicians. They are such hypocrites. And they lie, and they never tell you the truth. But the reality is the reality, it's harsh. And it's a life and death situation.
Ian: Let’s turn back to your project on Clubhouse. How did you choose the beginning date of April 4th?
Weiwei: Because April 4th is the Chinese holiday Qingming Jie.
Ian: Tomb-sweeping day.
Weiwei: I chose this day because this is a day for the ghosts, for the people who have passed away. So we started on that day in the early morning at zero o'clock Beijing time, which was 5 o’clock in the afternoon of April 3rd in Portugal. And the reading will end on the anniversary of the earthquake, May 12, at midnight. A total of 39 Days.
Ian: It must have required some organization to set up the websites, gather enough people together, and iron out the logistics.
Weiwei: When I had the idea, I called a few friends. An old associate, whom I used to discuss politics with on YouTube you met her, Han Kui in Prague, she made dumplings before we went to see Franz Kafka’s grave)—she and her husband have been so helpful. And then I have another friend in New York named Zhu Ruikun, who is an independent filmmaker. And another friend Liang Zhipeng, who was a student of mine, and who now works in MIT. And we found a few students of mine from the Berlin fine arts university. And I told them the idea and we decided to do it. The preparation took about a week.
Ian: So fast.
Weiwei: Actually, it was less than a week. When I have an idea, I like to jump in. I don't like to be over-prepared. I want to face the difficulties; I want to fall. It's like when you learn to ride a bicycle, you fall over and over before you get it right. The structure's very simple. We needed to find 39 people because from April 1st to May 12th is 39 days. And those people need to be distributed around the world to cover the different time zones. We set up three groups of 13: one in Europe, one in the U.S., and one in China and Australia.
I thought, this means each person will just have to read for 24 hours. That is covered. But the reality is much harder. Nobody can read 24 hours straight. So I said okay, we can break this down, each of the three groups is responsible for eight hours. I designated a manager for each time zone, who is responsible for organizing the readers for their shift. When the European team finishes, then the US team starts, and when the US team finishes, the Beijing team starts.… That way the work progresses around the world. So it's nice, it's global. It covers everything. And then I realized we needed to have two managers for each time zone, a manager A and manager B. This is because of the way Clubhouse works, it is easy to become locked out of the speaking part of the room, it’s like a door accidentally closes behind you, so one of the managers always remains at the top so as to let the other manager in. So I had to double the number of managers, for a total of 78 people. around the world.
Ian: How do you keep all of these details straight?
Weiwei: I’ll show you the calendar. It’s pinned to the wall. Each day is marked with who is responsible. And we mark down who is reading. From beginning to the end, who is taking care of what segment of time, who is manager A and manager B, their phone number and everything, what time zone they’re in—this is Beijing, this is American, this is Europe. That's how I do things with all my projects. We are very precise. We're more like a military operation. I'm good at that and that's how we manage to find the 5,000 student names.
Ian: I often wondered how you organized the Citizen’s Investigation, to gather those names.
Weiwei: In China, it's not easy. Even today, we don’t know how many people were killed in Tiananmen Square. We still cannot find the names. And even Chinese government cannot find the names. For instance, they say the Japanese massacred 200,000 people in Nanjing. This was 70-80 years ago. But they don’t have the names. They have only found about 2,000 names. This is one of the craziest things about China. They cannot come down to the truth. It is not just the government, it is also the people.
Ian: Why do you think this is?
Weiwei: They are too poetic.
Ian: If that’s the case, I’ll throw away my entire library of poetry.
Weiwei: Actually, there is a deep irony. If you want to establish truth, people accuse you of having ulterior motives. For instance, with this project, someone has accused us, saying we’re just trying to cash in on those names. The same thing happened after Tiananmen square. When we started to research the names of those who died in Tiananmen, then some people said we shouldn’t put salt on an open wound, that by doing this, we are insulting those parents. But, of course, the parents wanted us to find the truth.
Ian: And the same thing happened when you gathered the names of the schoolchildren from the earthquake.
Weiwei: Why would they do this with their own children, their only children. Some of them had already reached 17-18 years old. And they died in a collapsed government building. The bodies of children crushed under that building. Take one look, the buildings next to those schools were still standing. Apartment buildings, hospitals—they're all standing. Only the schools collapsed. Of course, they promised to investigate. But they never did. So corrupt. I travelled through the area, we drove hundreds and hundreds of miles to every government institution to ask for the truth. Not one of them would give us an answer. Not even one answer. We wrote tens of thousands of questions. You know, if we do something, we do it very precisely. We keep all the records.
Ian: That asking came at such a personal expense. The truth becomes personal so quickly.
Weiwei: Of course I got some damage in my brain, which almost finished my life in 2009. And Tan Zuoren ended up in prison for all those years.
Ian: Will Tan Zuoren be able to access Clubhouse and be able to read some of the names? What about some of the parents or survivors of the earthquake?
Weiwei: I called him. Of course, he said he'd like to read. But he’s under such political pressure, every day, the police come to talk to him. He said to me, "I feel my life is finished. I want to read the names, but I don't know how. If I could, I definitely would.” There is another person, Chen Yunfei. He lives in Sichuan, and when I was beaten, he was there. He was sentenced to four or five years in prison because of our activism and because he socialized with me. He was in jail for four or five years! He loves this project. So I invited him to be the first reader. He and his mom read two chapters, each chapter contains 200 names, it takes about 13 minutes to read. He joined Clubhouse and was reading the names. He got his 80-year-old mom to read with him. He would read a name and then his mom would read a name. Just as he finished, he said "Weiwei, I just finished. I cannot talk anymore. My voice, I lost my voice." And right after that, he said I will talk to you later… then he got arrested.
Ian: He was arrested because of this project?
Weiwei: Yeah, he's now in jail because of the project. Yes, he’s in jail because we had a phone conversation. Of course, Public Security listens to everything. He said he would try to get the student's parents to read. We really tried to get those parents to read or listen. But they are under such pressure even to this day. And now, Chen Yunfei got arrested. You know, each year during this period of time between the May 12th to June 4th, this is the most sensitive time of China. Every year, Chen Yunfei and other dissidents are forced to go travel, or be taken away by the police to be locked down somewhere nobody knows. They just pick them up on the street.
Ian: What happened to his mom?
Weiwei : They sent his mom, 80-years-old, to live with his niece. They just told her, “Take care of this old person. Her son is not going to come back.” You know China can be so tough. This nation wants to be so glamorous. It is trying to be the biggest superpower in the world. Yet, look how they treat their citizens, look how they treat someone just for reading these names. What for? Why are the authorities afraid of these names?
Ian: One of the things I’ve learned from you is that the corruption of power is also an expression of fear.
Weiwei: I want to see my power create fear in the government. You can see the fear in their eyes. When you see that fear, then you can see how powerful you are. That's the game.
Ian: I'm surprised. I had thought that perhaps the government had begun to forget about these names, that after 13 years that they'd moved on.
Weiwei: No, they can't. They cannot forget. Nobody can forget anything. Only people forget. The government doesn't forget.
Ian: Is the project going the way you imagined? Did you think more people would read?
Weiwei: The funny thing is when we read, we discovered not very many people joined in. It's very few. I usually will get 70,000 followers easily. Even on Clubhouse, which is so new, if I talk in any room, usually hundreds of people will rush into the room to listen. And yet, I'm talking every day in the Remembrance Room, and almost no one shows up, the room attendance yesterday was 12 people. They're all our people, just a few listeners, maybe four five or four listeners. The most crowded the room gets might be 50 people.
It is so different from my experience in 2010. Think about this: at that time, we announced if anybody wants to read those names, read one name, send back to me. In about 10 days, I received over 10,000 responses. Each person read one name sent to me. I edited them all together. There were over 3,400 different people reading all the names. It’s 443 minutes long. At that time, 10 years ago, I did this within 10 days. I received over 10,000 responses in ten days. Today, there are only 12 people in the Clubhouse room reading names aloud. Can you believe it?
Ian: Let’s return to taking action, and the reading of names as a form of concrete action.
Weiwei: Why do I encourage people to take action? It's a learning process for me. There are so many people, but how many people are willing to talk the talk, and walk the walk? Right now nobody walks the walk. Basically, it's our own people, and they are few. Wang Fen is reading. Ai Lao is reading. You are reading. A believer is a believer, they are not a bystander. But the number of readers is very, very small. But I'm happy. When I see things getting difficult, I also get a chance to learn. People say, "Oh, why don't you promote it?" My response is this: "I don't need to promote it. It's such a beautiful moment, I want to keep it for myself."
Ian: I understand that. I love listening to people read these names. I just turn on Clubhouse when I’m cooking or washing dishes or taking a walk. These names have been part of my life for so many years. But really as an internal dialogue. They have been a part of my mind but in silence. And now there they are. The other day, I was listening to them and an owl landed on a fence just next to me. I felt like it was listening to the names…
Weiwei: When I do anything, even a little exhibition, the media rushes in. They write a big article about it. But this has been quiet now for 15 days. It makes me feel very good. So good.
Ian: As I've listened, and this observation goes back to the very beginning of our conversation, what I feel is that the project is shifting the shape of our consciousness. It's almost like we are going back in time to a preliterate culture, to an oral culture.
Ian: And in this consciousness, people put all of their faith in the way in which someone's voice sounds, in the cadence of their voice, in the emotional sincerity of their voice. And it's so revealing. To me, this project is very, very revealing about the state of people's minds.
Weiwei: Also, nobody's sure about this because the content is abstract. Names are abstract.
Ian: When the names are removed from a living being, and when they are lifted from the rest of the language that was the medium that nourished them, they become very abstract. There is just this sound and set of images we have to make sense of.
Weiwei: It's like you pick up a seahorse on the beach, but you don't know what this strange creature is. It has dried out, maybe it’s just a broken seahorse. But, it’s so beautiful. You try to imagine what it is, what it was like.
Ian: I love this image so much. As I translated these names, I often felt they were like some beautiful stone, a tiny stone, a little stone that washed down from a mountain somewhere, but I don't know where, maybe the mountain is already missing, it was eaten long ago by rain and a river.
Weiwei: If any of these children were still alive, you couldn't imagine what their life would be like.
Ian: And this very thought has been at the forefront of my mind as I read the names. Who would each of them have become. It is like calling attendance to some class where all of the students have gathered—the beautiful rhythmic drumbeat of their names echoing out into the darkness. To me the classroom is like the night sky, you are calling out to stars that are too far away to say, “Yes, I’m here.”
Weiwei: It only takes four seconds to read each name. But it takes such effort. I read the whole name list through many times, and I made a recording for over five hours. I also did it twice in 2019, and in 2017, I shouted all the names.
Ian: I tell everyone to listen to “Shouting Out” (https://www.5122018.com/shouting-out). That piece really had a profound effect on me. It changed several of my poems. I began to pay more attention to breath. Listening to your voice deteriorate over time as you shouted their names, the names were eating away at you, it was like you were a mountain, it felt geological. It was also like a rite of passage, the performance was almost shamanic. But now the time has changed. I don’t think it is time to shout now, at least that doesn’t make sense to me.
Weiwei: This time it's very meaningful in many, many ways. I like to walk alone to see how far I can take things. But this time it is being shared by all these people on social media. This is a really meaningful project, and it’s tough. It's not an easy project.
Ian: One of the things that happens in this project sets it apart from other works that were made to be exhibited in a museum. When people go into a museum and they can look at the work in ways where they aren’t really vulnerable, they aren’t on display. But when you sit in this room on Clubhouse, and you read the names, you become really quite vulnerable. You become part of the work itself. Emotion rises so, so fast.
Weiwei: You become desperate. You're in a hole by yourself calling out the names of people who died 13 years ago. You call them out one by one, trying to pronounce the name right, and make such an effort out of respect. But that effort becomes so clear here. That's why when you were reading, Ian, everybody thinks it's most touching, because the emotion, the effort you showed is the most difficult. So everybody in the group says to me, "This is the most beautiful reading."
Ian: Thank you, that's really nice to hear. I think every reading is astonishing, and true to the heart of each reader. Some of them are more attractive to me as a listener, but I would never want to create a hierarchy—we are all in this together and that is one of the profound beauties and challenges of this work. One of the things I love inside this space is the rhythm. How did you determine that the names should be paced four seconds apart?
Weiwei: I just knew. I'm a filmmaker. I have been doing this a long time. I know exactly how many moments are needed. It's between three or four. So I think for many people not familiar with names, four is needed. But to give too long a time would be too formal. It's not right.
Ian: I love the silence after each name and then that initial attack of the family name, the minute pause, and then the given name. I just feel the name blooms, and then there's this quiet. There's just enough quiet so that you can then read the next name. One of the things that I find so extraordinary is that we are constrained by the rhythm of the name list. And yet, that restraint also gives birth to a form of freedom. Through the deep concentration of reciting the names, we are opening up a kind of freedom that is very different from how we typically understand that word.
Weiwei: I think freedom only takes the form of fighting. When there's no fight, there’s no freedom. People in the west always say, "Yes. We have freedom." I say, "No, you don't have freedom. When you say you have freedom, you don't have it. You can only struggle for freedom. You cannot have freedom."
Ian: I’ve never thought about it like this. When we fight for freedom we are trying to open a new potential of how to be, a condition that will allow for our human potential to bloom. You can see this art and poetry bloom inside of these moments when people don't have freedom, when they have to fight. And that is a poetry and art based in reality. It is not an empty aesthetic, an art for art’s sake.
Weiwei: Each of us is perfectly built and capable to love. But one doesn’t own love. Love is a common property, just like freedom. Freedom cannot just belong to just one person. Freedom has to reflect the human condition.
Ian: You visualize freedom like a mirror?
Weiwei: We always can cry for freedom, fight for it, die for it. But if you don't care about freedom, how can you have freedom? In the West people say, "Oh yes, we have freedom. We're a free country. We're democratic." My response is: "Oh, bullshit." This is the biggest bullshit, the biggest lie.
Ian: The word freedom is at the heart of our propaganda.
Weiwei: It is the same as the communist propaganda. Just different forms.
Ian: It doesn't matter what the name of the power is, in a sense, each form of power creates its own form of reality. I understand it as power separating us from the actual meaning of language. How do we counter the reality of propaganda?
Weiwei: One way to fight propaganda is to read in the dark quietly by yourself. And this is like a Buddhist practice. Buddhists spend a lifetime trying not to become stuck in some unthinkable situation.
Ian: The reading of the names to me feels very much like a Buddhist chant. It feels like reading like a Sutra, say repeating the phrase “Om mane padme hum” ....
Weiwei: Well, there's a little story about these six words, Om mane padme hum. An old Buddhist monk was walking along in the mountain looking for a place to get a drink of water. And in the distance he sees a light shining out of a poor, little house. So he walked to that house. He looks through the door and sees an old lady sitting there reciting these words. He sits down quietly and listens. Finally, he says, "Old lady, you are reciting some words wrong." The lady stops chanting, "Really?" He says, "Yes." She says, "I've been reading this way for my whole life." He said, "Oh, it's okay. I teach you the right way to read." So he tells her. She feels quite ashamed but corrects herself and starts to read again. The monk leaves. He walked away in the dark of night. He turns to look back at the house. The light is gone. She had been so sincere. Her belief was a form of light. Once she was told she was incorrect, the light extinguished. It became totally dark.
Ian: Doubt crept in, and orthodoxy began to make a claim about what was true and not true.
Weiwei: This happens in the U.S. and all over the world. It is killing the human soul.
Ian: There is such a beautiful relationship between belief and luminosity, truth and luminosity. One of the things I really appreciate about the way in which you design the Niannian page, is that the page is black, and the list of names scrolls up from the bottom of the page, the names are faint, and then the moment they reach the center of the page they illuminate for four seconds, and then they go dim again. So there's almost a synesthesia to the experience of reading the names because they're illuminating as your voice enunciates the name.
Weiwei: Yes, and they're light for such a short time. And then they are gone, and another appears. It is just so powerful to think about... You can try. It's not easy to finish the whole whole reading unless you concentrate. 200 names in each unit is a good length. It's not too short. Normally, it takes me 50 to 80 names to get my mind really settled.
Ian: I have the same experience! Before it is my turn to read, I start reading the names in silence to get my mind settled, but it is so hard not to be affected by the previous reader’s voice, I have to find my own voice. It is easy to take on the energy of the previous reader, and then I feel a conflict with my own voice and my own mind.
Weiwei: I can see you. I know what you are doing. Your reading is the most incredible because you're like the old lady who recites in the total darkness, and there is this light because the effort is there.
Ian: I know my pronunciation, my tones are wrong.
Weiwei: You also change your style. You read differently each time. Each time I read it is very different, it reflects my mood, my situations, the way I see things. All these things are in your reading, they become part of your reading. You can hear your mind.
Ian: We each have the illusion our reality is constant, that we are the same from one minute to the next. And then you participate in a project like this, and you suddenly can see that your brain is just like a huge wave. Sometimes you're way at the top of the wave and sometimes you're down in a trough. One of the reasons it was important to me to only write the poems on the day of the child's birthday was that I wanted to feel and see that fluctuation over the course of the year. Because we are not separate from time. Being and time are inseparable. They are one and I think they are inseparable from the rotation of the Earth around the Sun. And I extended this to only editing those poems on that same day they were written. So if I want to edit a poem, I have to wait for a whole year because I want to respect that annual rhythm. I think that there's probably a huge wave of consciousness that follows the whole year. It's such a giant cycle that we can't see it. We're like frogs that are down in the bottom of the world.
Weiwei: We don't know it. We can’t see it.
Ian: We can't see it, but if we write each day and we only write on that day, maybe there's some way in which we can begin to sense that whole landscape.
Weiwei: I think that's very good. We just don't know it. There are four birds; two are dying, and we just don't know it. It's about being in that moment. It's about the heart in the moment.
Ian: And this is one of the things I love so much about your work Weiwei. You’ve kept these names alive for 13 years. These children still allow us to see our heart in that present moment.
Weiwei: Now we’ve talked for exactly one hour and forty-eight seconds.
Ian: Weiwei, it's such a pleasure to talk to you. It's wonderful to hear your voice, and I’ve really missed talking to you the last couple of years.
Weiwei: I think we always meet at the right time. We're like the two single rocks in the universe. We each have our paths, but they cross each other, and we meet.