Police Told Ai Weiwei He’d Seen ‘Too Many Hollywood Movies’ While Discussing Rights

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Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Days before his massive public art project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” opens citywide, Ai Weiwei reminisced about his time in New York in the ’80s while at The New Yorker Festival on Sunday night. Weiwei came to New York in 1981 and lived in the U.S. for over a decade. “I spent one or two summers painting mixed sketches, West 4th Street and Seventh Avenue,” he said. When asked how living in the city affected him, he said he learned his vices here. (Who hasn’t?)

“I am a person who just come from a communist society, so everything in New York is extremely stimulating or have such an impact on me,” he said. “I spent 12 years in the United States, so basically I learned all my bad habits from that.”

He continued, more seriously, saying he was “victimized” by his time in the U.S. “When I was in detention after 50 interrogations, the very high level secret police sitting in front of me finally they said, ‘Oh, you have been watching too many Hollywood movies,’ ” he said. “He simply doesn’t believe what come out of my words, of my mouth, is come from my head. He thinks I’m talking about brainwashed … I talk about — It’s hard to even to repeat, freedom of speech or individual rights or liberty. For police, they think of this as ridiculous.”

Later, commenting on Guggenheim’s decision to pull works from a show that animal-rights activists deemed cruel, Weiwei stressed the importance of freedom of speech. “In a society, if not allowed freedom of speech or even to show something that is not desirable or not suitable, would be much more dangerous society,” he said. “People see art as degenerate or doesn’t really fit into a perfect image of a society … I don’t think it should have been withdrawn.”

Police Told Ai Weiwei He’d Seen ‘Too Many Hollywood Movies’