On Thursday evening, lit.COLOGNE, Germany's most prestigious literature festival, brought together Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel laureate Herta Mueller. Both use art to examine the impact of dictatorship.
Ai Weiwei and his interpreter, Herta Mueller and publisher Michael Krueger
The Schauspielhaus in Cologne was packed as Herta Mueller and Ai Weiwei walked out onto the stage to rapturous applause.
Petite and elegantly-dressed in black, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for literature radiated a sharp intelligence and a timid warmth. Beside her, the artist in his trademark casual clothes appeared bearlike but in no way did this friendly giant overshadow his interlocutor.
German writer Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009
Although they come from very different countries, the two artists are bound by their similar background, their courage and their sharp and constant criticism of totalitarianism.
Chinese cigarettes and Romanian songs
As young people, they were also brought together by the good relations between their two countries, which Herta Mueller recalled with humor. "We always had Chinese cigarettes. I think there were five kinds," she said with a smile.
"They were the best, especially compared to the Romanian ones. The good Romanian tobacco was exported. Once I walked in front of a chemist’s, which were usually empty, and there were glass eyes in the window. Glass eyes of all sizes and all colors. They looked good!"
Herta Mueller turned her brown glass eye into a necklace, eliciting a range of responses from those around her in drab, communist Romania.
The Romania that she knew was not the country Ai Weiwei dreamed of in another village thousands of miles away. "I am happy to hear how multi-faceted China’s support of Romania was at the time," he told the writer with his trademark irony.
Ai Weiwei used an interpreter at the event
"As you were admiring Chinese glass eyes at the chemist's, we were watching Romanian films. We thought the songs in Romanian films were extremely romantic. If we could sing them, we could capture any young girl's heart."
However, it was not glass eyes and movies that linked China and Romania most but a shared ideology.
'Catastrophe for humanity'
The son of a once-revered poet who was banished into exile and forced to clean toilets during the Cultural Revolution, Ai Weiwei uses photography, video art and installations to criticize the Chinese state today. He is by no means duped by his country's economic development.
"It is certain that we live in an absolutely totalitarian state and this state does not want to give up its power structures," he told the audience in Cologne. "This country has over a fifth of the world's population and is trading in all directions with the world. Some say this country is the hope for the future. I say very clearly that if this system continues to exist in this form, it will spell out catastrophe for humanity."
Asked if there could be any hope at all, he assured his listeners he lived in daily hope that new technologies, especially the Internet, would change the situation and bring democracy to China.
For her part, Herta Mueller questioned whether the Internet could serve as a platform for political resistance. Her fear was that the authorities in China or Iran are so arrogant that they do not care if people at home or abroad know about their crimes.
But Ai Weiwei refused to give up hope, arguing that a flicker of light in the darkness of totalitarianism was better than nothing at all.
In pursuit of truth about Sichuan earthquake
It is this dogged optimism that drives his art and activism. In Cologne, he showed photos that he had made of the devastation wreaked by the earthquake that rocked Sichuan on May 12, 2008.
Ai Weiwei and Herta Mueller look at a list of the 5,200 schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008
"After all the pain, all the donations, the state has not fulfilled its promise and has not investigated the sub-standard school buildings," said Ai Weiwei. "When we wanted to find out how many children had died, the state told us we were spies and we were spying for the American imperialists. As an artist, I thought I would look for the children who had disappeared myself. It is our responsibility."
He and dozens of volunteers - 30 of whom were later arrested by the police who confiscated their data - found out the names and dates of birth of 5,200 children who had died. Tellingly, they also discovered that they were pupils in only 20 schools out of 1,000 schools in the area - 20 schools that were probably not built according to the regulations, although this has not been proven.
The list of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake covers one whole wall of Ai Weiwei’s massive studio in Beijing. In Cologne, the picture of this wall brought an awed silence into the room.
Secret police an integral part of authoritarian regimes
Another picture that Ai Weiwei showed, describing it as his best photographic work so far, was of him in a lift with two police officers that were tailing him, none too subtly. He took the photo with his mobile phone and immediately posted it on the Internet.
As one of the most famous of China’s dissidents, Ai Weiwei enjoys a certain degree of protection but it takes courage to confront ones "minders" in such a way.
Herta Mueller can very much empathize with Ai Weiwei's experiences of being spied upon or accused of spying for the West. In her novels and essays, she criticizes the Securitate, Romania's secret police, and depicts the atmosphere of fear, humiliation, and distrust that prevailed in communist Romania.
"This immediate accusation of spying is so typical. I think it exists in every dictatorship. If we look at Cuba or Iran, they always say people are working under the influence of external powers. I heard it all the time. At a factory that I worked in, people would say 'so-and-so is a CIA agent.' They didn’t even know what CIA stood for!" she said.
The greatest accusation was that a person was too individualistic, lacked collective spirit and did not display a socialist attitude. Both Ai Weiwei and Herta Mueller fell prey to this accusation but it did not stop them from taking refuge in art and literature to nurture their individuality.
Herta Mueller saw Romania’s brutal regime fall. Ai Weiwei hopes he too will see China's one-party system fall.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Grahame Lucas