Ai Weiwei: Seeds of an iconoclast

He is as uncompromising in his politics as he is in his art, and now, it seems, he is paying the price. But how far will the Chinese regime go to silence a man feted as a hero by the rest of the world?

Clifford Coonan
Saturday 09 April 2011 00:00

Tiananmen Square, the vast plaza at Beijing's heart where the Chinese government crushed the student-led democracy movement in 1989, is a regular feature in the work of Ai Weiwei.

A colour photograph from 2009, 20 years after the crackdown, shows China's most famous artist, standing on the square in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word "Fuck" printed on his chest. In another photograph from 1994, Ai's wife, Lu Qing, lifts her skirt to expose her white underwear as she stands in front of the imposing Mao Zedong portrait at the gate to the Forbidden City.

These are images, shocking in the context, that are typical of Ai's work: sharply critical of the all-powerful Communist regime that runs China with an iron fist, but also imbued with the compassion that has made the artist/philosopher such a popular figure.

His vast and beautiful sculpture Sunflower Seeds, for example, draws the focus of the visitor to the painstaking effort of the people who handpainted its 100 million porcelain pieces. It was described by Juliet Bingham, curator of Tate Modern, where it is currently being exhibited, as a "powerful commentary on the human condition". If the struggle for freedom and democracy is part of the human condition, this also goes to the heart of Ai's work, and helps to explain why he was arrested as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong this week, and is now facing charges of "economic crimes".

His detention came as a shock, but won't have come as a surprise to the artist, who had openly forecast that his days as a free man were numbered, yet persisted in making statements of principle he knew would go down badly with the authorities. "Democracy is not a condition we can really choose or not choose: it's absolutely necessary," he said in an interview in January at his studio in Beijing. "Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's difficult, and sometimes it can be even dramatic, but I believe what we do is very necessary and essential. It is something that we cannot really avoid by living in China," he said.

The studio in the capital's Caochangdi art district is also his home. Dozens of his students work for him there, Chinese and Western, acolytes who help him with his major works and with his voluminous internet research. Cats and dogs roam the compound he built as his first architectural project; it was a busy place until it fell silent this week, sealed off by police.

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 to a revered poet and Communist Party member Ai Qing and his wife, Gao Ying. Ai Qing was denounced during the Cultural Revolution for criticising the regime and the family was packed off to a labour camp in Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei was only a year old when his father was sentenced but his activism has inspired and influenced the artist ever since.

At the Beijing Film Academy, the directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were among his classmates. But he found film studies dull, so in 1978 he co-founded the Stars, an avant-garde art group, with Huang Rui and Ma Desheng. The following year, the Stars held an unauthorised exhibition in a park across from the National Gallery, which became a sensation, both domestically and internationally, after it was shut down by police.

Seeking creative oxygen, Ai left China in 1981 for the US, discovering Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. He struggled a little in New York to find his niche, and his installations and surrealist works sat uneasily with trends at the time. During his 12 years in the US, he became friends with, among others, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg before returning to China in 1993. There he helped to establish the experimental artists' Beijing East Village. Things moved quickly once he was back in the culture that obviously inspires him so much. He co-founded the Chinese United Overseas Artists Association and at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 he co-curated the controversial exhibition Fuck Off.

Ai's name became familiar beyond art circles in the West with his involvement in the construction of the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This came at the invitation of the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, but it seems remarkable now that the political powers gave him leave to participate. Naturally, the activist in him was uncomfortable with the role and he was later critical of the structure, saying that the Games were being used to mask social and political problems and as a showcase for China's growing power.

His father's elevated status conferred on Ai the profile of a cultural blue-blood, allowing him to work with relative freedom in China, unlike, say, Liu Xiaobo, the writer and Nobel laureate recently imprisoned for 11 years for subversion. The fame Ai garnered globally from the Games also saved him from censure at the time.

But things have been building up against him, particularly after he became active on behalf of parents of children killed when their shoddily built schools collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008. The following year, police burst in to his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him so badly that surgeons in Munich later had to drill two holes in his head to stop a brain bleed. He has said he believes this attack came after he tried to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, who collaborated with him on a project commemorating the children. It comprises rows and rows of A4 paper that make up a large rectangle, with each sheet bearing the names of the 5,835 students who perished. Last year Ai was placed under house arrest and, in January of this year, his Shanghai studio was demolished.

Ai has been actively involved in documenting the arrests of prominent artists, lawyers, writers and activists on his Twitter account, where he has more than 70,000 followers. Social networks are key to freedom of speech, he said, and he is a Twitter star in a country that bans that particular social network.

There are critics of Ai who are not Communist Party apparatchiks. Many others believe he is an opportunist, a publicity hound, who takes his ideas from other people. Just as many say he is an artistic genius. Those who meet him find him a likeable figure, but he is also scratchy, mischievous and impatient, and he thrives on controversy in a way that made a collision with authority almost inevitable.

No one knows where Ai is now in detention, but one certainty is that few people, including the artist himself, have any confidence that he will be treated fairly by the legal system. "The judicial system cannot try one case independently," Ai has said. "That's only the reason they are there, to manipulate and destroy justice." In an interview last month he spoke about his fear of prison. "Under the police, there is abuse of power, and violence, and so many cases where you cannot see the truth behind it."

The raised middle digit features in some of Ai's pieces, illustrating the mix of the weighty and the witty that characterises his work. His Study of Perspective series features just Ai's hand, flipping the middle finger to the Forbidden City. Clearly, it has politically subversive elements, but Ai Weiwei is a profoundly democratic iconoclast. The series also has him giving the finger to the White House, the Hong Kong skyline, the Berlin Reichstag, the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican.

After a career raising a middle digit to the Chinese establishment, it now looks as though this maverick must, as one state-run newspaper chillingly put it this week, "pay the price". It seems there is no room for Ai's brand of taboo-busting as China, fearful of a home-grown "Arab awakening", cracks down hard on dissident behaviour.

A life in brief

Born: 28 August 1957, Beijing, China.

Family: His father Ai Qing was one of China's most famous poets. His mother Gao Ying has been campaigning for his release. He is married to artist Lu Qing.

Education: Graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1981. Moved to the US until 1993, where he studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

Career: Decided to become an artist in the late 1970s and co-founded the Stars, an avant-garde art group. Helped to design the Bird's Nest structure for the Beijing Olympic stadium, gaining international prominence. Was the 11th artist to show in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2010.

He says: "Sometimes my work is political; sometimes it is architectural; sometimes it is artistic. I don't think I am a dissident artist. I see them as a dissident government."

They say: "There are people who say that he is doing some kind of performance art. But I think he long ago surpassed that definition. He is doing something more interesting, more ambiguous. He wants to see how far an individual's power can go." Chen Danqing, painter and social critic

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