“Rembrandt painted himself 30, 40 times,” says the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. “So did Van Gogh. But I can do 50 or 100 selfies in a day, easily.” He smiles. “I love doing them: I’m the best selfie artist.”

We are standing on a terrace below the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, the site of Ai’s first solo exhibition in Turkey, an exemplary retrospective of more than 100 artworks, showcasing his profound and longstanding engagement with porcelain as a material.

Beneath us is the Bosphorus strait, separating Europe from Asia, busy with tankers and merchant vessels. “Look how beautiful the light is,” says Ai, 60, agreeing to my request for a selfie with him. He takes my phone, so that he can compose the shot. “Not everybody knows how to achieve maximum effects,” he tells me. “I’m very skilful at lighting.”

These days, Ai is so famous that people ask him for selfies all the time; before and after our interview, I watch members of the public, including a group of young Turkish art students, sidle up to him, hoping to document their meeting on a smartphone.

“Even in the remotest places, in South America or the Middle East, somebody will jump out and say, ‘Can we do a selfie?’” Ai says. “Of course, sometimes it’s annoying, but, at the same time, I like it. It takes less than a second to do, and people love it.”

I’m a freak of technical control – Ai Weiwei

After snapping a couple of selfies on my phone, Ai encourages me to copy him and “give a gesture”. For a second, we both extend our middle fingers, in homage to Study of Perspective, Ai’s infamous series of photographs in which he makes obscene gestures at international landmarks, including the White House and the Eiffel Tower. Then: click! Our selfie session is over – and, on my phone, I have a group of “unique” artworks, taken by one of the most prominent artists in the world.

The fact that Ai wants to take every selfie himself is revealing. As he tells me, referring to his obsessive attention to detail when it comes to art, “I’m a freak of technical control.” And his perfectionism and mastery over materials is evident throughout the Ai Weiwei on Porcelain exhibition, which is full of objects of startling beauty and technical accomplishment. “I have a great sensitivity for beauty,” he tells me. “I’m very picky in terms of aesthetics.”

Moreover, many of the works on display, including an arrangement of massive porcelain cubes outside on the terrace where we conduct our conversation, were technically extremely challenging to produce. “You see nine of them here,” he tells me, “but firing tubes that straight is very difficult. Maybe a hundred ended badly: we’d open the kiln, and everything had melted. The challenge, here, is the size, and the joins.”

He pauses. “Making porcelain is such a complicated process, because the high temperatures that are necessary, more than 1,200 degrees Celsius, change the chemical structure of the stone. Very often, when you open the ovens, it’s a disappointment.”

Passionate about porcelain

At the start of the exhibition, which opened recently to coincide with the 15th Istanbul Biennial, a porcelain plate, decorated by Ai with a bird motif in 1976, attests that he has been working with porcelain for more than four decades. He first encountered the great tradition of Chinese ceramics in the mid-70s, before he was 20 years old.

Around the time of the death of Chairman Mao, his family had returned to Beijing, having lived for many years in the Gobi desert, where Ai’s father, the famous poet Ai Qing, had been exiled. A friend of the family, who was an expert in porcelain, encouraged the young Ai to visit Cizhou, a famous centre for ceramics, in Hebei province in North China.

“That was the first time I saw this tradition,” he tells me. “Conceptually, porcelain is very beautiful. To begin with, it’s mud, and it’s still mud even after it has been painted. But afterwards, when you open the kiln, it becomes something adorable.”

No contemporary artist respects tradition as much as I do – Ai Weiwei

Yet some of Ai’s most famous work involving porcelain suggest that his attitude towards this “tradition” is anything but reverential. At the Sakip Sabanci Museum, there are 10 pieces from his ongoing and provocative series Coloured Vases: Neolithic and Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) urns dipped in garish industrial paint.

There is also a triptych, rendered in Lego bricks, reproducing a well-known set of photographs that document an infamous “performance”, executed by Ai in 1995, during which he dropped and shattered a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn.

Surely, these are the works of an iconoclast, with zero respect for tradition? “No contemporary artist respects tradition as much as I do,” Ai tells me, speaking softly and intently. He mentions a wood-and-glass display case, at the start of the show. It contains the fragments of an antique blue-and-white porcelain Chinese bowl, decorated with a dragon motif, which he smashed in 1996. 

“Every time I see it, I feel regret,” he continues, “because it was so beautiful, so hard to find and expensive, and just smashed with a hammer. But, at the same time, it represents a kind of attitude, a statement about finding new possibilities, about changing forms, or breaking them into something else.”

I always say that great art is not the end, but a beginning – Ai Weiwei

Indeed, many people understand Ai’s iconoclastic actions as a kind of commentary on the Cultural Revolution, when the state urged people to destroy the past, including cultural sites and relics. “I always say that great art is not the end, but a beginning,” he says.

In fact, talking to Ai, it becomes apparent that he is a passionate connoisseur of porcelain. “I love antiquity, and I have great curiosity about how each generation made porcelain,” he says. “Different emperors changed taste. They changed the shape, form, colour, and way of drawing, the way the glaze came out from the firing. They set such impossible standards, and I think that is fascinating. Even if you are blind, you can tell the date of a porcelain when you hold it, because of the shape of the mouth and the foot and its weight – you can tell.”

He pauses. “I can’t think of a single artist,” he continues, suddenly referring to himself, “who has explored one material in such a variety of ways, relating to its past, its own nature, and to current political and social conditions.”

‘Tiger, tiger!’

Indeed, an eye-catching installation at the end of the exhibition reveals the extent of Ai’s love for porcelain. Tiger, Tiger, Tiger (2015) consists of approximately 3,000 porcelain shards from his own collection, arranged carefully upon the floor, like a patterned carpet. Each fragment dates from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and is decorated with a tiger motif. Most of these tigers, it must be said, look cute and cuddly, rather than scary: they are very charming. “I guess, in the old days, only a few people had ever seen a tiger,” says Ai. “So, drawing one was a bit like drawing a dragon – an act of imagination.”

Ai picked up the shards, most of which were discovered by farmers, from a flea market in Jingdezhen, China’s “Porcelain Capital”, which has been producing pottery for 1,700 years. “The dealers know me only as this guy who buys tigers,” he says, “so whenever I go there, they all shout, ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ It’s very funny.”

What is it about tigers that appeals to him so much? “Somehow the tiger sticks out for me, because it’s very expressional and interesting,” Ai says. “I like the fact that each tiger is different: within this motif, the artist found some creativity and personal expression.”

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger encapsulates many of Ai’s chief concerns as an artist: repetition, multiplication, and the relationship between the individual and society. “Being part of humanity is hard for us to understand,” he tells me, before continuing, somewhat cryptically: “If you are a tree, it’s hard to understand the forest. You are just one single tree, but still you are eager to understand why the winds come and the leaves grow and fall, and then, next spring, grow green again.”

Many of Ai’s installations adopt a similar format to Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. For instance, Spouts (2015) presents thousands of antique teapot spouts, dating from the Song dynasty (960-1279), in a low, flat heap upon the floor. Together, they look like bones in a mass grave. Another powerful work in the Istanbul exhibition is Remains (2014), a set of 54 porcelain replicas of human bones excavated from the site of a labour camp that operated under Mao Zedong in the late 50s.

Even Sunflower Seeds (2010), which was originally presented at Tate Modern in London, where it consisted of millions of apparently identical but in fact unique grey porcelain seeds, each hand-sculpted and painted by an expert craftsman in Jingdezhen, has a distinctly elegiac, even funereal air.

Is this solemn quality something that Ai recognises in his work? “I think so,” he replies, gently. “The deep feeling in all my activities is as you say.” 

Where does this “deep feeling” come from? “I don’t know,” he replies. “I suppose it’s about life and death. Throughout human history, there have been so many strong and beautiful minds, so many emperors and dynasties. But they all collapsed. Today, they are ruins for tourists.”

Taking a long view has helped Ai to reconcile himself with everything that he has suffered, because of his political activism, over the past decade. His promotion of democracy and human rights in China resulted in many run-ins with the ruling Communist Party. In 2011, for instance, Ai was arrested and imprisoned without charge for 81 days; his passport was also confiscated, until 2015. 

I have no anger at all… all those difficulties have given treasure to my life – Ai Weiwei

Today, though, he feels equanimity about his treatment by the Chinese authorities. “I have no anger at all,” he tells me. “All those difficulties have given treasure to my life. They challenged my normal conditions and made me look at things differently. Even the people who put me in such difficult conditions were acting as humans.”

After his passport was returned, Ai began travelling extensively, while filming Human Flow, a new, feature-length documentary about the global refugee crisis, which premiered at this summer’s Venice Film Festival. He tells me that, since 2015, he has been back to China only once, to visit his mother, but he would never take his son, who lives in Berlin, where Ai has an impressive subterranean studio. “The danger is still there,” he explains, referring to his homeland. “Two of my lawyers are still in jail, so, you see, this isn’t an imaginary situation – it’s dangerous and real.”

At the same time, he says, “Everything is changing: our politics, even our planet.” Changing in a good way? Ai sips some tea. “With our planet, it’s a sad story,” he says. “What we have today, our beautiful planet, with all this warmth and life, is a miracle; the rest of the universe is just dry and cold, there’s nothing there. But our planet is also extremely fragile, and we are destroying it.” He shakes his head. “It is human nature to believe that we are so smart, that we control the universe. But, at the same time, human nature is suicidal, because we never fully appreciate how temporary and ephemeral our fate really is.”

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic and Columnist of The Daily Telegraph

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