Ai Weiwei

Considering he’s China’s public enemy No1, it’s surprisingly easy to get into Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio. Four years ago, those who had heard of Ai in the West knew him best as the man behind Beijing’s Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium. Today, he is one of the world’s most recognisable artists, infamous as the target of the Chinese government’s oppression. This is a man who, thanks to his loud criticism of the state, has been put under house arrest and imprisoned numerous times. An activist who was beaten so severely by policemen he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.

And yet when ShortList visits, there are no uniformed officers at the door or barking patrol dogs. There aren’t even the plain clothes police who stopped Ai attending his own trial a few weeks ago.

Security cameras are still directed at the sea green door that marks the entrance to his grey brick compound, but they are not hard to spot. Instead, ShortList is met by an assistant and a couple of well fed cats (just two of Ai’s 30 feline companions).

Last year, in a case that had hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world signing petitions and demonstrating on the streets for his release, the 55-year-old was taken in by the Beijing police for a gruelling 81-day interrogation.

“It was very inhuman,” he tells us, now almost back to his regular fighting weight, having lost two stone during the ordeal. “I was in complete solitary confinement. Two soldiers would stand in front of me, 80cm away, 24 hours a day.”

Many believed this was payback for Ai’s political activism, a way of silencing his very vocal critiques of the government on Twitter and his blog. Throughout his career, Ai has been accused of everything from bigamy (he has a three-year-old son by a woman who isn’t his wife) to pornography (for releasing some of his artworks which contain nudity on the web). The charge eventually brought against him was tax evasion: Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, his company, was ordered to pay a £1.5m fine.

“It’s just absurd, a kind of madness,” he says, his voice rising. “The tax case is not really towards me. It’s the company. They never formally told anybody why I was arrested. Nobody from the government ever wanted to communicate with me. Instead, they beat me, [ransacked] my studio and detained me. It’s shameful that they do secret tricks [like this] on citizens that don’t agree with their policies. I feel sad for a nation [China] so powerful and strong that cannot face facts or admit its mistakes.”

He was released from police custody on 22 June 2011 and supporters raised £500,000 towards his legal fees. Some even folded 100 yuan notes (roughly £10) into paper aeroplanes and threw them over his compound wall. Ai was then placed on a year-long probation period during which he was not allowed to leave Beijing. He was also instructed, he tells us, “not speak to the press, not go on the internet, not to criticise the Chinese government and not talk about [his] detention”. His response? In August 2011 he defiantly returned to Twitter to speak out for other victimised activists.


Ai’s one-year probation recently ended and in theory he is now able to leave Beijing. But, having lost his tax appeal (tried in a court he was not allowed to attend), he sees little cause for celebration: “If they can take you in once, they can take you in another time. And they don’t have to release you,” he says “My passport is still in their hands. I cannot travel freely abroad. I’ve been followed, my phone has been tapped and my emails checked. I’ve been warned not to talk too much. So you see, they are still trying to control my activities. It’s not lawful and they know it. But the law in China is not strictly applied to the people who are in control.”

With so much attention focused on his struggles with the government, it’s easy to forget that Ai initially found fame as an artist. “I can’t remember the first time I wanted to make art,” he says groping for a career explanation. “It’s like asking, ‘Can you recognise the first time you knew you were a human?’”

When he began working, art was solely the domain of the government; state-controlled galleries were filled with socialist propaganda. Just holding a private exhibition was an act of rebellion.

In the late Seventies, Ai joined an avant-garde group known as the Stars – who cannily exhibited their experimental work in a park next to the National Art Museum Of China and around a monument known as the Democracy Wall. But when movement leader Wei Jingsheng was imprisoned in 1979, crushing the fledgling collective, Ai grew weary, and left for the US in 1981.

Continuing to play the rebel during the 12 years he lived in New York, he dropped out of Parsons School Of Design and earned money playing blackjack, painting portraits on the sidewalk and taking odd jobs as a babysitter, gardener and construction worker. Unflinchingly candid when it comes to revealing his treatment by the government, Ai seems reluctant to talk about this period of his life. Our questions about New York in the Eighties are met with a curt “skip it”. But in the catalogue for an exhibition at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing of his black-and-white photos taken in New York from 1983-1993 (including images of his friend Allen Ginsberg), Ai wrote: “I didn’t really have anything to do. I was just hanging out, whiling away my time by taking pictures of people I met, places I went, my friends, my neighbourhood and the city. In a flash, 20 years have passed, and the New York I knew no longer exists.”

While the art he produced during this period could be provocative (in the show ‘Old Shoes Safe Sex’, for instance, he attached a condom to a raincoat) it wasn’t overtly political.

It may have stayed that way had Ai not been drawn back to China, in 1993, by his dying father, Ai Qing – a nationally renowned poet who fell from grace in the late Fifties. Because of this, the family was banished to the region of Xinjiang, where they were once made to live in a pit.

Young Ai spent his childhood and teenage years watching his father being punished for being an intellectual – he was forced to clean the village’s public toilets and ink was poured over his face. It’s not surprising that reconnecting with his frail father at this time was what repoliticised him. “I don’t have to consider going into politics – I was in politics when I was born,” he explains. According to Time magazine, his father’s dying words to him provided the final impetus: “This is your country. Don’t be polite.”


Back in China in the Nineties, Ai was soon giving the authorities the finger. Literally. He shot photos of his hand flipping the bird at Tiananmen Square, and in 2000, he co-curated an exhibition called ‘F*ck Off’ as an alternative to the Shanghai Biennale. He seems to harbour a toilet-wall scribbler’s affinity for the F-word. There are even neon letters spelling it out on the wall of his courtyard.

In October 2010, he produced an exhibition packed with multiple meanings (chief among them the vastness and conformity of the world) at London’s Tate Modern, when he filled the gallery’s Turbine Hall with 100 million handpainted porcelain sunflower seeds and asked visitors to roll around in them.

If it wasn’t for his arrest, the British public might have only known him as the artist struck down by the tyranny of health and safety (days after the exhibition opened, visitors were banned from touching the seeds amid fears of inhaling ceramic came to overshadow his work.

“Art doesn’t necessarily mean activism,” Ai tells us. “But in China we are living in a political society.” Yet despite his provocations, he initially avoided run-ins with the government. He even helped to design the national stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although he refused to attend the opening ceremony, telling us that while he was “deeply touched” by London’s opening ceremony, the Beijing Olympics were “just a fake show to impress people – that’s shameful”.

But 2008 marked a turning point. Long a fan of social media – first through his blog, then Twitter – he took his criticisms to a wider audience. One campaign in particular struck a nerve: his attempt to publish the names of the thousands of children who died in poorly constructed school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and take to task those responsible.

The repercussions of this were seen during a trip to Chengdu – Sichuan’s regional capital – in August 2009, when police beat Ai so badly he had to have brain surgery. He suffered internal bleeding and pain that was only relieved after doctors drilled two holes in his brain. But this only spurred him on.

“Every act made me have a strong response to them. This made a lot of people aware of my case. I became more and more of an activist.”

It’s a point borne out by his bullish response to continued surveillance. When he was followed by plainclothes policemen, he answered by calling the police on them.

“My effort is to make what’s happening transparent, so my and the government’s behaviour can be examined by the public. We are still living in a totalitarian society, trying to hide everything,” explains Ai. He continues, impassioned, “It’s not something I’m doing to just try to get attention. Every day people [in China] go missing. Every day people are wrongly accused, put in jail and disappear. Most artists turn away. Even when their house has been turned inside out, their children aren’t allowed to go to school and they can’t buy a car in the city – they don’t argue. I make an argument; somebody has to. The future for China has to be fairness, justice and individual freedom. I don’t know if art can help it get there, but it helps me understand my situation.”

As our time at Ai’s studio draws to an end, we take a look at a box containing props for the latest piece Ai is working on and spot some handcuffs. Technically, Ai is a free man. But the continued restrictions clearly still weigh heavy on his mind.

First appeared in ShortList on September 6, 2012.