Monday, 15 July 2024

Ai Weiwei

The extraordinary artist makes monumental installations of a radical and provocative nature, telling the truth about China and putting his very life in danger

FANTASTIC MAN - Ai_weiwei_1_fm12

The Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern is one of the world’s most coveted exhibition spaces, and the next artist to fill it is Ai Weiwei. Although a veteran of major art events such as Documenta 12 and the 48th Venice Biennale, in his home country of China Ai Weiwei is as much known for his activism as he is for his aesthetics. Based in Beijing, where he is under constant surveillance, the artist brazenly flouts the law to bring his view on modern day China to the rest of the world. He is an avid user of fashionable social networking sites, and on an average day he tweets approximately 107 times.

From Fantastic Man n° 12 — 2010
Photography by AI WEIWEI

FANTASTIC MAN - Ai_weiwei_1_fm12

“Okay, let’s start,” says the artist Ai Weiwei, greeting me with a wide smile.

It’s 9am on a sunny Beijing morning – so much for creative types sleeping late – and Ai Weiwei has already been up and at it for several hours. Given his reputation, I assume he’s been irritating the Chinese government and tickling his legions of followers by way of his famously acerbic Twitter feeds. (Consider: “The system doesn’t follow the law. The people don’t believe in the law. So who’s out of luck?”)

I have made what’s been called the ‘ritual pilgrimage’ to the compound Ai designed and built for himself in the city’s northeast outskirts. It’s a journey previously taken by the likes of Gerhard Schröder, Diane von Furstenberg and countless others who fancy themselves sophisticated and international. From the centre of town, you go past unremarkable high rises and light industry zones, beneath highway overpasses and railroad tracks and, finally, along a quiet, gingko-lined road. A blue metal door marks the entrance to Ai’s fabled home and studio, which he shares with his wife, the artist Lu Qing, and which these days also happens to be under surveillance by Chinese authorities.

Inside, the word FUCK is mounted on a garden wall in big neon letters. Otherwise, the scene is quite tranquil. Ai is sitting next to a pleasant, grassy lawn framed by cypress trees, antique stone fragments and thickets of bamboo. He’s accompanied by a member of his 30-or-so-person studio – a young woman, Germanic, I’d say, possibly Scandinavian – and several of his unconfirmed number of cats and dogs. (“We don’t really know how many we have,” he admits.) Ai has close-cropped hair, an unruly beard and an ample belly that together define what you might call the Ai Weiwei look. Wearing a periwinkle T-shirt and shorts, he politely leads me across a patio and into his loft-like, grey-brick home.

“That’s Du Du,” he starts off, catching me glancing at another free-roaming canine as we sit down at a huge wooden table.

Du Du?

“Yeah. And there’s Danny,” he adds, pointing to a female cocker spaniel. “We also have two of her children here.”

Ignoring his pet-naming decisions, I ask how his day is going.

“Normally, I give two interviews in the morning, but today I only have yours,” he says, continuing the small talk. Ai is known to be accessible. “Don’t hesitate to ask me anything you’d like,” he offers.

FANTASTIC MAN - Ai_weiwei_3_fm12
Mr. Ai Weiwei took this series of self-portraits in July 2010. Self-portraiture has been a continuing practice for Mr. Ai, with the artist often posting self-portraits on Twitter.

Ever since 2006, when the architect Jacques Herzog first insisted that I try to meet him – they had collaborated on the design of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, a project Ai later disavowed as a “fake smile” serving Communist propaganda – the Chinese artist, architect and dangerously outspoken activist has been a distant yet recurring motif in my life.

There he was, popping up at the architecture biennale in Venice and at exhibition openings in Beijing – always with an entourage and rarely without an assistant videotaping his every move. Once, I briefly interviewed him over a bowl of beef noodles. Another time, I visited his studio on a day I was told he wouldn’t be there, only to find him typing away at his computer.

Ai has a knack for being somewhere even when he isn’t. He infiltrates things. As part of a massive, high-concept exercise, he took over Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007 with no less than 1,001 ordinary Chinese whom he’d flown in for the occasion. Earlier this year, he helped organise a protest march on a highly symbolic thoroughfare in central Beijing. The demonstration was totally unauthorised and quickly halted by police, but at least one Communist Party newspaper covered it – and guess whose name was on the photo credit?

Ai, 53, is a conceptual artist who’s become known for his activism and an activist whose provocations verge on art. He named his studio Fake Design, but it’s really his life that his art imitates, and the other way around. This October, Ai will become the latest artist to transform London’s Tate Modern as part of the museum’s blockbuster series of Turbine Hall installations. For many, he’s the godfather of contemporary Chinese art, the man – no, the concept – around which an intriguing image of China begins to emerge.

So who, or what, exactly is Ai Weiwei? A figure of controversy in his home country, for a start. “In China, the newspapers and magazines used to report on me a lot – but mostly fashion publications,” he tells me. (I kid you not: as I write this, a friend has stopped by my home, randomly wearing a Comme Des Garçons T-shirt emblazoned with a watermelon and the words THANKS TO AI WEIWEI.)

“People on the internet have seen me on CCTV” – the Chinese state television network – “and said, ‘Weiwei, what the fuck? You’re on CCTV,’” he says. “Maybe they’re using old programmes, but it’s a big joke because I’ve been censored by them. Officially, they cannot mention my name.” Programmes must sometimes slip through the cracks.

What about the Tate installation? What are you doing for that?

“I really can’t talk about it; they even asked me not to talk to you in particular about this.”

So now you’re being censored by the Tate?

“Partially,” he says with an ironic chuckle.

The proper way to address Ai Weiwei is, in fact, Ai. The Chinese place their surnames first; his is pronounced like ‘eye’. But mostly, Weiwei (‘way-way’), as many call him, is an enigmatic yet omnipresent abstraction, an iconoclastic artist and philosopher whose contours are hard to grasp. He works in a range of media, from sculpture, installations and photography to architecture, film and, for lack of a better word, “actions”, while at various times moonlighting as an antiques trader, gallerist and curator. Until recently, he was also the proprietor of Qu Nar (“Go Where?”), a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of Zhejiang province, at which he frequently held court before it was demolished to make way for a new development last year.

As for his art, Ai is unapologetically irreverent and sardonic. He can be seen flipping his finger at the White House and Eiffel Tower in his well-known Study of Perspective photographs, and he has painted the Coca-Cola logo on ancient pots. All the while, his work often relies on earlier wreckage, the kind of creative destruction that defines China’s contemporary crossroads. There’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), a photographic triptych in which he smashes a 2,000-year-old vase. And Map of China (2003), a hulking, geographically correct sculpture made of wood salvaged from demolished Qing dynasty temples. Ai hits a nerve shared by Chinese and non-Chinese alike. As the artist later puts it: “What does ‘China’ mean?”

Nowadays, however, the more pressing question may be just how far he can push the Chinese authorities. Ai has become a gigantic thorn for the powers that be, a vocal critic of the government – for its corruption, human rights shortcomings and other injustices – in a country where life has been known to get difficult for vocal government critics. He doesn’t go about it quietly and misses few opportunities to act or speak out. During our first interview, he tells me how one week earlier, he’d driven into the mountains to rescue an activist who he says was abandoned there after being beaten by secret police. “He announced it on Twitter, said he didn’t know where he was,” Ai says of the man, an advocate for migrant workers. “We had to go out and find him.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Ai_weiwei_4_fm12

Then, during our second meeting, he’s interrupted by a phone call. “That was the people from the earthquake area,” he says. “They’re still calling me.”

‘The earthquake’ refers to Ai’s biggest cause to date – more specifically, the thousands of children who died in the 7.9-magnitude tremor that roiled China’s Sichuan province in May 2008. Most of the area’s young perished when their schools collapsed, as a result of shoddy construction that was widely attributed to the negligence and corruption of local officials. Fearing the ensuing outcry, the government silenced protests and failed to produce the names, or even a tally, of the victims.

In response, Ai sent an army of volunteers to the region to help fill the gap. The list they produced grew to more than 5,200 names. Even two years later, Ai daily sends out the names of the victims via Twitter on their birthdays. (Twitter is technically blocked in China, though that’s easy to get around.) For a recent exhibition, he covered the façade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst with 9,000 coloured backpacks forming a quote in Chinese characters taken from one of the children’s mothers. He’s flung open his doors to the press while producing documentaries about the tragedy; they are part of a series tackling a range of issues. “We’ve sent probably 50 or 60 thousand documentaries out on DVD for free,” Ai says, “though millions have seen them on the internet.”

Last year, Chinese censors shut down the popular blog Ai had started writing in 2005. “We had maybe over 50 million readers,” he laments. Meanwhile, he says his email accounts have been hacked, his bank accounts investigated, and his home staked out by mysterious men in parked cars; the latter have since been replaced by closed-circuit cameras.

“The machines are much friendlier,” he says, nodding toward a pair of surveillance cameras, mounted on telephone poles that are aimed at his front gate. “Before that, the guys waiting outside weren’t so nice.” (Even as a mark, Ai is a true gentleman, having once asked his surveillants if they might like some water. When they reacted poorly, he called the police on them.)

If it sounds like Ai is flirting with martyrdom, he’s got the scars to prove it: two of them, on the right side of his head. In August 2009, Ai was in the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu to attend the trial of a fellow earthquake activist when police broke into his room at the Anyi Hotel. It was the middle of the night, and according to Ai, he was roughed up and suffered a blunt blow to the head. A month later, surgeons in Germany had to drill holes in his skull to relieve the pressure from a serious brain haemorrhage.

“It was very dangerous; the doctor said he sees this level of severity, so much blood in the brain, maybe only once every three years,” says the artist, who was in Munich preparing his Haus der Kunst exhibition when the injury was discovered. “If we waited just one day longer, I may have lost my life.” He pauses. “So life is very fragile.”

In fact, Ai learned that lesson early on. His father, Ai Qing, was one of China’s most revered poets. And to understand what happened to him requires placing him in the context of 20th-century Chinese history – which, to put it simply, was a mess. Having first been imprisoned by the Nationalist Party for his leftist sympathies, the elder Ai was later denounced as a “rightist” by the communists. Which, to continue the ideological wheel spinning, was basically an unfounded accusation stemming from the madness of a reactionary purge.

What followed was more than a decade of exile, first to Manchuria and then the remoter Xinjiang region. Ai Qing was relegated to cleaning public toilets, while the family, which also included Ai’s mother and younger brother, had to scavenge for food. During the Cultural Revolution, things got worse: Ai Qing was pelted with stones and, to add to the cruel humiliation, had ink poured over his face. “He couldn’t wash it off, since we didn’t even have soap,” says Ai, who laboured making bricks and working the fields, starting at age ten. “I would have to go out and shit, you know, because there’s no bathroom. And then you look at the sky and you see it’s just yourself there in the desert.”

“My strongest influence on me is my earlier life,” he goes on. “The conditions we were in, how my father was treated, my family facing such insults and punishment. You know, I never believed in the system, and it seems I always had the most sympathy for the weak.”

Much of his art might tap into the suspicions among some of his compatriots that Ai is somehow anti-China. I ask him if he is. “You know, if somebody is critical, the Chinese government always blames it on some kind of anti-China, foreign force,” he says. “So I jump on the internet and say, yeah, I’m anti-China.”

But is he really anti-China? Like, anti-all-of-it?
He thinks for a moment. “I am anti-China. I’m more anti-China than anti-Communist. What’s the big deal?” he says, without losing his cool. “What does ‘China’ mean? Is it the history, the values, the people? What’s the problem with being an individual who’s anti-China, or any other place? This is your own individual position.” Clearly, Ai is not wholly anti-history, anti-values or anti-people, with regard to China or otherwise. He’s obviously quite the opposite. If he is anti-China, it depends on how you define China. But in my mind, Ai is simply anti-being-told-what-to-think-and-do.

FANTASTIC MAN - Ai_weiwei_5_fm12

After all, he’s exhibited a rebellious streak from the get-go, both in China and the West. Cut to New York, 1981. Ai, now in his mid-20s, has moved into a tiny hovel in the East Village. Back in China, Chairman Mao has died and the Cultural Revolution is over; Ai’s father has been rehabilitated and the family is back in Beijing. Alone in New York, after stops in Philadelphia and Berkeley, Ai soaks up Manhattan’s bohemian vibe. He enrols in Parsons School of Design, drops out, makes art and befriends Allen Ginsberg. He supports himself with odd jobs; in fact, he seems made for New York.

There, he took an interest in gay rights and the Aids epidemic and demonstrated against the first Gulf War. In 1988, in an effort to clean up seedy Tompkins Square Park, the New York City police instituted a curfew. The protests that followed were met by police brutality, and Ai was there to catch it on film. “We took some photos and sent them to the American Civil Liberties Union, got some police dismissed,” he recalls. To his list of occupational titles, one might add photojournalist: while in New York, Ai sold pictures to The New York Times, the New York Daily News and Newsweek.

It’s a little unnerving when Ai points his camera at you, totally without warning. In my experience, it usually happens when you’re talking, in mid-sentence. First, he casually lifts his camera or phone. Then he slyly squints – act natural, you tell yourself, and keep talking – before bringing the lens up close in a way no one besides your dermatologist should do. It’s as if he’s reminding you that he’s watching you as carefully as you are him. Or perhaps it’s his way of bringing you into his orbit; without realising it, you’ve become part of the Ai Weiwei show, a co-conspirator.

Pictures rarely lie. Or at least that’s my explanation for Ai’s obsession with documentation. He makes a point of leaving a paper trail, filing police reports when they’ll likely get him nowhere and invoking China’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act knowing full well that a response won’t be coming anytime soon. His first blog posts were like a Warholian scrapbook, filled with images of the minutiae of his life alongside nearly everyone he’d come in contact with. Unlike many others with strong beliefs, Ai has a remarkable capacity for self-reflection. At one point, he tells me the Chinese saying he wants on his tombstone: ‘He was the perfect example of the defects of his time.’

In short, Ai embraces transparency; it’s like he’s on a perpetual fact-finding mission while wanting to prove he has nothing to hide. Yet he also plays with truth. Besides calling his studio Fake Design, he’s made mutant furniture from real antiques, and faux objects (watermelons, sunflower seeds) using only the most authentic craftsmanship (and the former imperial porcelain kilns in Jingdezhen).

At the last Documenta, Ai built a monumental outdoor sculpture from antique wooden windows; a storm unexpectedly sent it crashing down. Two years later, while visiting one of his workshops, I saw the piece being reconstructed – this time in its collapsed state, as if it was always supposed to be that way. “I’m constantly dealing with people’s perception of what is real, what is fake, how we make our value judgment,” he says.

Ai wakes up around 6.30 or 7 in the morning. He spends about four hours working at the computer and receiving the unending stream of museum groups, journalists and others who come by.

Afterwards, he’ll have lunch – he has a penchant for noodles – and work with his studio on its various projects. In the afternoon, he’ll spend time with his only child, a toddler son he fathered with a filmmaker from one of his documentaries. “Then maybe I’ll handle other issues, call friends and have dinner, discuss some matters, you know, have a little bit of a social life,” he says. “Afterwards I’ll come back, jump back to the computer for another four hours or more. So that’s a day.” It sounds oddly prosaic.

In fact, Ai has a funny habit of repeating a phrase that goes something like this: “I had nothing else do to.” He deploys it to explain nearly every turn of his life – such as everything he got up to during his years in New York. (“Basically, I had nothing to do,” he shrugs.) And when he returned to China in 1993, after his father took ill, and started dealing antiques while continuing with his art. (“There was nothing else to do.”) And when, four years after his father died, he built his current home so that he could move out of his mother’s. (“She was annoyed, because I had nothing to do.”)

When he says he had nothing to do, it’s as if Ai is excusing himself for doing whatever he’s done, and has done it despite himself. He says it with humility, and perhaps there are fatalistic tendencies at work: “Life is unpredictable and has unexpected effects,” he emails me at one point. It helps explain his vulnerability to distractions – say, an activist who’s been stranded by the police in the mountains and needs to be saved. But maybe it’s also his way of defusing the criticism that he can seem like a celebrity artist, that he’s a bit overeager to give his audiences what they expect and want.

Therein may lie the biggest irony. If one takes him at his word, Ai has never wanted to be known as a Chinese artist per se. “In the ’80s, when Allen Ginsberg read me his poetry, and I showed him my portfolio, he said, ‘Weiwei, I can’t think of a gallery that wants to show Chinese artists’ work,’” Ai recalls. “At that time, it bothered me. I said, ‘Allen, I don’t think of you as an American poet. You’re just a poet.’”

What’s more, Ai is a champion of what he considers to be universal values. “The only thing I would not accept is regional thinking, because with today’s globalisation and the internet, the world is completely different,” he emails me.

But at the same time, Ai’s resonance depends in large measure on the extent to which he mirrors one’s feelings about China. While few question his integrity, his critics sometimes find him too quick to judge an evolving system that, given the long arc of history, has made dizzyingly rapid strides. On the other hand, his supporters see him as a voice for the underdog, a much-needed reality check for a nation at risk of complacency, of being blinded by its current success.

For some, there’s also the otherness factor. That is to say, he feeds into fears about a rising power they don’t fully understand. When Ai brought those 1,001 Chinese people to Documenta, he tapped into the West’s anxieties about being overrun by the Eastern giant. However, “My intention was focused on the 1,001 people and how this would affect their lives,” he says. “Any work, especially one related to worlds as different as China and the West, can carry completely different, even contradictory, meanings. And in general, people can only approach the surface; this is very normal.”

For him, he says, the piece was more about the process of making it, which included everything from an open call on the internet to securing passports for participants from Chinese minority groups who didn’t have last names. Referencing Kassel’s status as home of the Brothers Grimm, he called the experiment Fairytale.

That said, how Ai’s own story will turn out is impossible to predict. “I can’t answer why the government still hasn’t put me in jail, but I’m ready to face it,” he says, laughing nervously. “I would encourage them to not put me in jail. But I have to be prepared.”

Theories abound as to why Ai has so far avoided imprisonment. One explanation goes that, while he criticises the government, he doesn’t cross the line of questioning its legitimacy.

“That’s wrong,” he shoots back. “From the very beginning I questioned the legitimacy of the Communist Party, though I don’t have to say it all the time.”

Some people say he’s protected by his family background.

“That’s underestimating the system. Look what happened to my father, so what’s that background for?”

Maybe it’s that he’s too established.

“Throughout Chinese history, even those in the highest positions could be punished.”

At one point, I wonder if it’s because he’s avoided hyper-touchy subjects like Tibet. But then he tells me about the meeting, albeit back in 1989, that he had with the Dalai Lama. (“He liked my beard.”) So the most obvious answer, I think, would also help explain why he’s talking to me: in effect, he’s shielded by the international media.

“Could be. But I don’t know, maybe that’s also an illusion. No one’s that influential.”

He’s probably right. Overestimating yourself is risky, since finding your limits often means it’s already too late. But Ai seems fearless, or at least brave enough to face fear. And then he says something that sounds truly hard to believe, at least coming from him: “You know, people forget you from one minute to the next.”


Ai Weiwei first exhibited in 1979, as part of a group show in Beijing called The Stars. Although the show barely happened, due to the authorities shutting it down prematurely, it was a momentous occasion: the first time that experimental artists had dared to exhibit in 30 years of communist rule. The Stars group managed to exhibit a second time in 1980. Many see The Stars as having laid the groundwork for what became the contemporary Chinese art scene. Thirty years later, Ai has yet to be the subject of a retrospective at any major international art institution; his Tate Modern commission is possibly his biggest project in the West yet. As with previous Turbine Hall exhibitors like Carsten Höller, Olafur Eliasson and Louise Bourgeois, nothing about the installation will be revealed until the opening day, on 12 October 2010.