T SERIES: The Joy an Artist Gets From His Cats

The artist Ai Weiwei is inspired by the resilience and self-contentment of his beloved cats.

Article by AliceNewell-Hanson

Ai Weiwei, artist, with Shadow (left) and Yellow. Photographed at their home in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal, on Feb 22, 2021. Photography by Catarina Osório De Castro.

Ai Weiwei

My cats think they are so important. They always want to sleep in the centre of my bed or get on my shoulder, and I really have to negotiate with them. But they bring me so much joy. A neighbour found Shadow nearby, abandoned in some trash. She’s very small, but full of curiosity. Half is six and more sophisticated — I brought him with me to Portugal from my studio in Berlin, where I lived between 2015 and 2020 — and Yellow was a local street cat I took in. He’s very attached to humans.

If I go on a walk, he follows me, almost like a dog. But of course, all cats are independent, and our house here is in the middle of a field, so they can run around all day. In Berlin, we were on an upper floor of an apartment building, and Half and another cat I had then jumped out of a window. Fortunately, they weren’t hurt. Cats are so capable. It’s amazing. Any other animal would be dead.

When I was growing up in Shihezi, China, in the 1960s, you didn’t see families with pets, because of course communism is against private property, and any kind of compassion back then was deemed questionable. Animals were only valued as tools for productivity, as was the case with donkeys and horses, or for their meat. My mum’s generation also tends to think that animals are dirty. Communism is very concerned with cleanliness — you have to be spiritually clean, physically clean — and so even a little bit of animal hair somewhere is unacceptable.

When I built my own studio in Beijing in 2000, though, the first thing I wanted was to have some life in there. I bought one cat — the first cat — and took care of him for 20 years. At one point, I had more than 30 cats in my Beijing compound. They were all rescues. In some cities in southern China, like Guangzhou, there is a famous dish called Dragon and Phoenix that often contains cat and snake meats. It’s a mad local custom, and there are people who capture neighbourhood cats in other cities and send them south.

In 2009, I was working with an NGO called China Small Animal Protection Association — really just a group of kids, because even that kind of nonprofit can’t really exist in China — and we seized a truck filled with 400 cats in tiny cages. I couldn’t take all of them, so I took 40. And they were all different.

It doesn’t matter how many cats you have — each has its own character. I was under horrible stress in China. Every day, when I walked outside, I was being surveilled. The secret police would follow me or watch me — when I was in parks, in restaurants. But the cats were another world. They are indifferent to the human struggle. And yet they always find a way to inspire happiness. I did a lot of video interviews from Beijing, and every time, this one cat would jump onto my table and lie right in front of the computer. I always joked that he was a secret agent because he knew everything about my conversations.

I left Beijing in 2015, but I still have my studio there, and my assistants send me photos of the cats. They tell me if one dies, and how they buried it. I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life.

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 115 of T Australia with the headline:
‘Furry Friends’
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