China’s Impolitic Artist, Still Waiting to Be Silenced
Mr. Ai was in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, preparing to testify at the trial of a fellow political activist. “By 3 a.m., we heard a very strong noise in the hallway, very brutal, much like a Hollywood movie — knocking on every door: ‘Open it up — we are the police!’ ” he said.
“They kicked open the door. I said, ‘How do I know you are the police?’ They said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and punched me here.” Mr. Ai pointed to the right side of his forehead. “It was a very solid punch.”A month later, at an art exhibition in Munich, Mr. Ai went to a doctor with a pounding headache and was rushed into surgery to drain a pool of blood from his brain.
Mr. Ai nearly died. Three months later, he says, his memory still fails him. On the other hand, “I don’t have so many good memories anyway.”
That seems an exaggeration. At 52, Mr. Ai, a beefy, bearded man with an air of almost monastic composure, is an international figure in the art world, successful beyond what anyone might have predicted even a decade ago. He is a celebrated architect, a co-designer of Beijing’s landmark Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker with a 100-member staff.
Artistically, he can do almost anything he wishes, like personally shipping 16 40-foot containers, including 9,000 custom-made children’s backpacks, from Beijing for his recent exhibition in Munich.
Yet clearly, all is not rosy in Mr. Ai’s world. In one of his early acclaimed works, a series of three photographs called “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” he dispassionately shatters a priceless ancient Chinese vase, striking a theme — destruction and recreation — that runs through much of his art.
Other works employ Ming and Qin period urns, furniture and architecture, assembled into haunting new creations, or painted over, Warhol-style, with the Coca-Cola logo, or speared by wooden beams. A series of photographs depicts global icons — the Forbidden City, the White House, the Eiffel Tower — interrupted by Mr. Ai’s hand, middle finger raised.
Then there are his politics, an in-your-face criticism of China’s leaders that, given Beijing’s limited tolerance for dissent, seems almost suicidal. Long before the Olympics, Mr. Ai disavowed his role in designing the Bird’s Nest, saying the government had transformed the Olympics into a patriotic celebration instead of using them to create a more open society.
In a 90-minute interview in his minimalist studio in north Beijing, Mr. Ai called the government unimaginative, prevaricating, suspicious of its own people and utterly focused on self-preservation.
“They don’t believe in liberty. They don’t believe in China before the Communists,” he said. “There is only one simple, clear task: to protect their control, to maintain their governing. Which is such a pity.”
All of this he has said many times before. China’s nationalists often accuse him of shilling for the West, and in fact, Mr. Ai ended his chat with a plea to President Obama to call for greater freedom in China, saying “we still need the moral support of the Western leaders” to press for more uncontrolled space in a still-closed society.
With or without help, Mr. Ai is pressing hard. His most provocative art, as well as his latest cause, concerns the question of why the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed thousands of children in their classrooms — and why the government has refused to give the public an official explanation.
After the quake, Mr. Ai used the Internet to assemble scores of volunteers who combed the disaster area, compiling a list of more than 5,000 dead children, organized by age and school, that now covers one wall of his studio. “The picture became clear. All of them belonged to about 20 schools, and those schools, the buildings collapsed to dust,” he said. “Why did those buildings collapse, and the ones next to it are standing?”
THE citizens’ inquiry has produced a detailed list of questions, sent to government agencies, which were supposed to be answered by this past Tuesday under law, but have yet to be addressed. In December it will yield a documentary film on the disaster.
In Munich, the inquiry produced Mr. Ai’s most arresting work of art to date: those 9,000 children’s backpacks, covering one exterior wall of the Haus der Kunst. Against a blue background, colored bags form the Chinese characters for the message, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a quotation from a mother of one earthquake victim.
The Munich exhibit is titled “So Sorry,” a caustic comment on the government’s near-silence on the schools disaster.
Mr. Ai’s beating in August occurred as he was preparing to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan writer and activist who was trying to investigate the same issue. Mr. Tan was accused of inciting the subversion of state power. Mr. Ai was blocked from testifying at his trial, which has yet to produce a verdict. This week, though, another activist, Huang Qi, received a three-year sentence for encouraging parents to press their grievances.
A disquieting sense of foreboding accompanies these jousts with the all-powerful state.
Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was both an artist and one of China’s most revered contemporary poets, who as a young man studied Baudelaire and Mayakovski in Paris. When he returned to Shanghai in 1932, the ruling Kuomintang party jailed and tortured him, calling him a leftist. It was right: in 1941, Ai Qing joined the Communist Party.
BUT 17 years later, in the infancy of Mao’s new People’s Republic, he ran afoul of the Communist Party for subtly criticizing its suppression of free speech. The party exiled him, first to Manchuria, then to remotest northwest China; Siberia, essentially.
Mr. Ai and his family lived in a hut dug into the ground. His job for the next 16 years was to clean out the village’s public toilets.
“He was 60 years old. He had never done physical work in his life and he had to start doing it,” his son said. “Every night, he comes home very, very dirty. But he says, ‘For 60 years, I don’t know who cleans my toilets. So now I do something for them.’
“That’s something I learned from him. He became very powerful in terms of his thinking. He made the toilet so clean, he would see it as a work of art — like a museum, like MoMA.”
The family returned to Beijing in 1976, with the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1985, the elder Mr. Ai, now rehabilitated, would receive a literary award from President François Mitterrand of France. His son, on the other hand, could hardly wait to flee China.
Young Ai Weiwei studied at the Beijing Film Academy but in 1981 left for the United States. In New York, Mr. Ai said, he was in the city’s art scene, not of it. He held temporary jobs and moved 10 times, throwing out his canvases each time for lack of storage room.
When his father fell ill in 1993, he agonized over returning to his homeland, which harbored such painful memories. But after 1989, and the silencing of protesters at Tiananmen Square, he had decided that “the world became different.” And so he returned to China in 1993, reckoning that one day he might face something like his father’s fate.
Lately, there are indeed signs that the government is reaching its limit. His blogs on Chinese Web sites, about issues political and otherwise, have been shut down. Someone has installed two video cameras outside his studio. The police are said to be scrutinizing his finances, an ominous development in a state where other political critics have been prosecuted for what appear to be concocted fiscal misdeeds.
“He has never done anything illegal,” said his lawyer and friend, Liu Xiaoyuan. “But if he continues on his current path, getting involved in some very high-profile cases, I will get worried. Some government departments are already very annoyed about him.”
Mr. Ai says he is ready for whatever comes. “I came to art because I wanted to escape the other regulations of the society. The whole society is so political,” he said. “But the irony is that my art becomes more and more political.”