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Furry Friends


AI WEIWEI, artist, 63, with Shadow (left), 10 months, and Yellow, 1. Photographed at their home in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal, on Feb. 22, 2021.

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

AI WEIWEI, artist, 63, with Shadow (left), 10 months, and Yellow, 1. Photographed at their home in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal, on Feb. 22, 2021.

Interview by Alice Newell-Hanson
Photograph by Catarina Osório de Castro

April 12, 2021

Ai Weiwei: My cats think they are so important. They always want to sleep in the center of my bed or get on my shoulder, and I really have to negotiate with them. But they bring me so much joy. A neighbor found Shadow nearby, abandoned in some trash. She’s very small, but full of curiosity. Half is 6, 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.

CreditCredit…By Catarina Osório De Castro

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 mom’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.

Friends Who Create Together Friends Who Are Muses New Friends Friends Who Are Family Weekend Friends Friends Who Share a Language Best Friends Friends Who Summer Together Old Friends Friends Who Came Up Together Party Friends Friends Who Teach Each Other Friends Who Saw It All Friends Who Inspire Each Other Friends Who Became Adults Together School Friends Clients Who Became Friends Partners, Now Friends Actor Friends Friends Who Cook Together Furry Friends Friends Who Protect One Another Friends Who Make Music Together Hometown Friends Work Friends Mentor/Protégée Friends Friends Who Miss Each Other Friends Who Create Together Friends Who Are Muses New Friends Friends Who Are Family Weekend Friends Friends Who Share a Language Best Friends Friends Who Summer Together Old Friends Friends Who Came Up Together Party Friends Friends Who Teach Each Other Friends Who Saw It All Friends Who Inspire Each Other Friends Who Became Adults Together School Friends Clients Who Became Friends Partners, Now Friends Actor Friends Friends Who Cook Together Furry Friends Friends Who Protect One Another Friends Who Make Music Together Hometown Friends Work Friends Mentor/Protégée Friends Friends Who Miss Each Other

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 neighborhood cats in other cities and send them south. In 2009, I was working with an N.G.O. 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.

ImageAi says of Yellow, “If I go on a walk, he follows me, almost like a dog.”Ai says of Yellow, “If I go on a walk, he follows me, almost like a dog.”Credit…Catarina Osório de Castro

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.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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