The Art of Social Advocacy
By RON GLUCKMAN
He may not be China's most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei's stature defies all odds: He not only delights in infuriating Chinese officials, but this soft-spoken, multitalented artist, known best for his performance and conceptual work, also eschews cocktail parties and claims to spend a mere 5% of his time thinking about or creating art.
Still, Mr. Ai, 53, is undoubtedly China's most outspoken artist. In 2008, as the rest of his country cheered on the Olympics here, the co-designer of the most iconic symbol of that year's Games—the National Stadium, also known as the "bird's nest"—stirred a tempest by insisting there was nothing to celebrate. He accused the Chinese government of putting on a charade, showcasing its modern facilities and economic might while depriving its own people of dignity and basic rights. He called it a fake coming-out party and coined an alternate slogan for Beijing's global welcome: "Pretend smile."
Mr. Ai himself doesn't smile much. "I probably spend 30% of my time meeting with people whose wife has vanished, or son is missing or been arrested without evidence," he says when we met earlier this month in his art studio north of Beijing. "They tell me about their problems, things they should really tell officials. But nobody else is listening."
Mr. Ai spends six to eight hours each day online, largely on Twitter. His blog was blocked long ago. "I'm totally banned in China. Nobody can talk about me or my work," he says, stroking his signature beard. Then, with a grin, he adds: "At least, not officially."
When Mr. Ai was placed under house arrest last November, news immediately spread around the world. "The Internet is a miracle," Mr. Ai says. "It is the thing that will change China, definitely. Of that, I have no doubt."
All this would seem to leave Mr. Ai scant time for making art; instead, it's fueled a prolific and meteoric career. He mounted more than a dozen shows last year, including an exhibit at London's Tate Modern (through May 2, 2011) that features 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, individually crafted by 1,600 workers. Mr. Ai is also among China's most well-known architects and photographers. He has two major shows soon: a retrospective in Switzerland of his photography and an exhibition in Austria of his architecture.
That he can achieve all this without much time for meetings or networking is all the more astonishing since such work normally demands total immersion and constant self-promotion. Of course, it helps that the Chinese government buoys Mr. Ai's fame by keeping him in the news.