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While making Simon Schama's History of Now, Simon met several of the most influential contemporary artists working in the world today. In this series of extended interviews, Simon meets Ai Weiwei, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Margaret Atwood, to uncover the personal motivations behind their work and activism, their sense of why art matters, and their unique perspectives on the state of the world today.

Station: BBC Four (GB)
Rating: 0/10 from 0 users
Status: Running
Start: 2022-12-11

Simon Schama Meets Air Dates

S01E01 - Ai Weiwei Air Date: 11 December 2022 22:00 -

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Ai Weiwei is arguably the world's most famous dissident artist, celebrated for his prolific and profound output of sculpture, installation, architecture, photography and film-making, which is never afraid to take on systems of power and oppression.

What is less well-known, however, is his extraordinary backstory. His father was distinguished poet Ai Qing, who was a key cultural figure during the Communist rise to power but was one of over half a million intellectuals who fell afoul of the state during the Cultural Revolution. He lost everything and was exiled alongside his young son to ‘Little Siberia' in northernmost China. For the first 20 years of his life, Ai Weiwei's experience of his father was not as a writer but as an ‘enemy of the state'. Ai Weiwei tells Simon the harrowing story of his childhood, and his memories of his father's stoicism in the face of decades of persecution. He reflects on the lessons he took from his father, above all that ‘freedom of expression is the foundation for humanity.'

Ai Weiwei also describes his own journey towards becoming a dissident artist and a voice for the downtrodden, and how he – like his father – continuously pays a heavy price for speaking truth to power. Ai Weiwei has carried this sense of duty with him throughout his career and recalls how he took on the Chinese state in the early days of the internet and social media, and the life-threatening consequences he faced, including 81 days in state detention, an experience he recounts in chilling detail.

In the years since, he has continued to use his work and notoriety to stand up for the oppressed in the face of authoritarianism, and he speaks candidly to Simon about the vital role that truth and the preservation of memory can have in the battle for democratic freedom all over the world. Ai Weiwei reflects powerfully on the need to ‘fight' for ‘all those values' that are ‘meaningful for life itself'.

S01E02 - Nadya Tolokonnikova Air Date: 11 December 2022 22:30 -

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Nadya Tolokonnikova is one of the founding members of Pussy Riot, a Russian activist punk group who gained international notoriety for staging a guerrilla performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, resulting in two years in prison. Speaking to Simon not long after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, when the price of speaking the truth has grown higher still, Nadya explains that she is working harder than ever to fight for what she believes in.

Being a radical protest artist has never been easy in Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Nadya discusses with Simon how she sees herself and her fellow activists as part of a long tradition of radical, counterculture rebels in Russia. From the Bolshevik Revolution to now, there has always been a seam of Russian free thinkers who have dared to rebel against the norm in the face of overwhelming state oppression.

Nadya reflects on the key moments in her life and career, from the early days of her guerrilla performance art, to the global notoriety of Pussy Riot, and to her brutal imprisonment and years of trauma and persecution in her homeland. Throughout it all, she has clung on to her agency, her motivation and her belief that art can save people's lives. At a time when ‘we are facing depression on a global scale', Nadya wants to show ‘that there is always hope. My name is Hope. My name literally means hope in Russian'.

S01E03 - Margaret Atwood Air Date: 11 December 2022 23:00 -

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Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is one of the world's most renowned and prolific writers of fiction, poetry and essays. She is best known for a series of darkly visionary novels - The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, and The MaddAddam Trilogy - which tunnel into the darkest possibilities of what humans can do.

Simon meets Margaret in Toronto at a time when the rights of women and the fate of the planet, ever-present concerns in her work, are at the forefront of many of our minds. Atwood gives her take on the seismic ruling of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, and the consequences it will have on women's rights in America.

She reflects on how, in her view, the ruling was a long time coming, with the rise over decades of the Evangelical Christian right wing, the very same movement that inspired her to write her iconic novel The Handmaid's Tale, a book that has taken on even more relevance in our fractured times. Atwood explains the inspiration behind her most famous novel, and how her rule when writing was ‘I will not just make stuff up. So, everything I put into it had to have a precedent somewhere in time or space on this planet'.

Atwood goes on to explain her unconventional childhood, and how it has inspired her cautionary tales about the state of mankind and the planet. She grew up surrounded by wilderness and nature in the vast Canadian forest and learned much from her parents – both scientists – about the responsibility of humans to care for the planet and to apply a scientific rigour to her research and writing.

Simon and Margaret also talk about their shared admiration for writer Rachel Carson, who played a pivotal role in stirring public consciousness about our fragile relationship with the earth, and how we need to remember her voice now more than ever. For Atwood, Carson's work is an example of the power of great writing. By combining scientific accuracy with poetic prose, she captured readers' imaginations and helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. For Atwood, even with all the darkness and desperation in the world, Carson is a reminder that, as long as we have great art, there is always hope.

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