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Larry Warsh first met the artist Ai Weiwei on a trip to Beijing in 2005. He immediately connected to the him and his work, and over the years, a friendship developed. Warsh visited Ai while under house arrest from 2011-2015, and during that time helped to publish a book of his sayings, “Weiwei-isms” (Princeton University Press, 2012).
Whitewall asked Warsh about his first time meeting Ai, and learned how the two share in the belief of the positive power of art.
WHITEALL: You’ve known Ai Weiwei for years. Do you remember the first time you met the artist and the first time you encountered his work?
LARRY WARSH: I am honored to count Ai Weiwei among my most important friends. I learn so much from him and I am really in awe of his contribution to the art world and beyond. I was first introduced to Ai Weiwei in 2005, thanks to a mutual colleague in Beijing. We had the chance to hang out at his studio amidst his art. It was an incredible thing to hear him speak about his work and his use of materials. I was totally hooked on his art from the start and I began collecting his work right then and there.
WW: How has your relationship evolved since then?
LW: We share a strong connection based on our mutual interests. Ai Weiwei lived in New York for over a decade, and we relate as New Yorkers, as art collectors, as fathers, and as two ambitious guys who believe in the positive power of art. Over the years our collaboration has grown in many interesting ways.
In 2011 he was taken into secret detainment in Beijing and I made every effort to support him from afar. All of sudden he was gone from the scene, and only a month later we launched his “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze” series in New York City. It took years of planning to organize that exhibition and world tour, so of course we were all deeply concerned for Ai Weiwei at that time. I felt a tremendous responsibility to act on his behalf through his art.
During his four years of house arrest—from 2011 to 2015—I visited him in Beijing every three months to hang out and offer my friendship and encouragement. That seems like a lifetime ago. These days he’s thriving and making things happen all over the world, and it’s truly something special to be involved with the evolution of his art and life.
WW: What was the initial idea for “Humanity”?
LW: Several years ago, I approached Ai Weiwei about doing a book of his quotes and aphorisms. He loved the idea and we collaborated with Princeton University Press to publish the title “Weiwei-isms” in 2012.
His focus on the worldwide refugee crisis has taken center stage in his work, so “Humanity” naturally evolved out of his involvement with that issue. Actually, it was during the launch of his Human Flow documentary in Venice that I came up with the idea. We were walking together along the water and he expressed his desire to create a book to accompany the movie. “Humanity” builds off the ideas presented in “Weiwei-isms” and is a companion piece to the documentary, but it also stands on its own as a compelling commentary on the refugee crisis.
WW: How did you arrive at the books size?
LW: Both “Humanity” and “Weiwei-isms” express big concepts in a small book—this makes for a strong impact. The phrases are immediate and accessible.
W: What are some of your personal favorite quotes by the artist, featured in Humanity?
LW: “I always see humanity as one. If someone’s rights are violated, we are all deeply hurt.”
“History teaches us that at the beginning of the greatest tragedies was ignorance.”
“The border is not in Lesbos, it really (is) in our minds and in our hearts.”
“I have no illusions about power. Where there is power there is danger.”
“Freedom only comes from the struggle. Liberty is about the fight. We often forget that in prosperous times.”
“As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles … I never separate these situations from my art.”
WW: What do you hope readers will find and take away from “Humanity”?
LW: I think Ai Weiwei’s voice is heard far and wide. He is a borderless artist and a true humanist. He is using his art to express his deepest convictions and he is devoting his life to his belief that all people deserve equal rights and freedom of expression. I hope readers of “Humanity” can feel inspired by his tremendous effort and by the sincerity of his ideas. Ai Weiwei speaks from the heart, and it remains an honor to be aligned with his mission.