While China prepared for the 2008 Olympics, the artist Ai Weiwei was busy collaborating with the Swiss architectural firm, Herzog & de Meuron, on the Bird’s Nest stadium. Gradually, Ai began to experience a deep sense of disgust: “I was so involved in architecture that it opened my eyes to society, dealing with bureaucracy, policies and workers,” Ai observes, “and then you start to realise why they are building, and how they are using it. It is a very political act.” He denounced the Games as nothing more than a totalitarian spectacle. Profoundly disenchanted by the enforced relocation of Beijing inhabitants as a result of the Games, Ai began a journey from radical but successful artist to infamous activist.
But Ai reaches back to a longer history when he stakes out his political battleground today. The line between Ai’s performance and politics has constantly pushed against the artist’s remit in an authoritarian situation. He is the son of the modernist poet Ai Qing, who found himself banished to a labour camp along with his family during the 1950s anti-rightist movement. “Now my own position is very simple,” Ai tells me. “I am an individual. I am an artist. I am living in this society which my poet father also lived in. Many other artists and writers live in it. And I just have to give out my opinion on the matters that occur in my daily life.”
Gao Yuan for Ai Weiwei Studio. All rights reserved.
Away from the sprawling mass of glass and steel that cocoons Beijing’s hurtling development, Ai Weiwei’s studio house sits on a quiet street in the suburban Caochangdi district. A bicycle strewn with flowers is parked outside, in silent protest against Ai’s restricted travel arrangements. I pass through into a still courtyard of grass, trees and ceramics. In an unsubtle attempt to depoliticize him, Ai was imprisoned in 2011 on charges of tax evasion and served with a £1.5 million tax bill. “The problem is that the Party does not trust people, and is afraid of their power,” Ai says, “once that does not change, any talk of true social change is not possible.”
Ai’s arrest came as part of a broader crackdown amidst Party fears that China might learn something from the mass movements blazing across the Middle East, inspiring a “Jasmine Revolution”. He was released after 81 days. Freed from prison but banned from leaving China, Ai exists in a strange purgatory. “Even though I was hurt, or almost beaten to death, put through jail conditions and the fabrication of crimes, I am still alive,” Ai reflects wearily, as the morning sun begins to filter through his studio, “I appreciate this very much, and I am always ready for a clear minded fight.”
It is not long before a certain wildness of the artful agitator and social critic in Ai’s personality enters the conversation: “Once the internet age arrived we have had a very different kind of politics. An individual can bear much more responsibility and be much more powerful.” Ai Weiwei clearly delights in his role as free-spirited critic, fully immersed in the virtual society of the networked age, with all its promise. “Power in China lacks all legitimacy. After 60 years in control, how can you still not let people vote? When you disassociate yourself, without trust or credibility, any other talk has no meaning,” Ai fumes. “We may try to jump from the western frame to measure what China is. But what China really is, is a society which lacks the very most fundamental basis for a real social structure.”
He formulates his critique in deadly fashion via the daily documentation of his life on Twitter. In the networked individual’s embrace, social media becomes both a savvy tool with which to defy the State, as well as a transcultural gesture. In seeking to align technological power, the will for liberation and globalisation, Ai relegates his opponents to the hierarchical forms of the past: “My critics use the judgments of old society because they do not understand the internet. Now an anonymous person can speak a sentence so brilliant or poetic, and it is so readily accepted by others…”
Ai’s fostering of a fully-fledged social critique, on course for a showdown with the government, was compounded by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children fell victim to shoddy architecture. “I do not care as long as my message is not an empty performance,” Ai asserts. “So my message is very clear: to fight for individual freedom, to fight for democracy, and by doing so, to clearly inform a society and become someone for others to reflect on.” Bypassing official news networks, Ai began his own “Citizens’ Investigation” in Sichuan, shoving his camera under the noses of government officials, blaming the province’s structural faults on systemic corruption, and then explosively linking this with the powers that be in Beijing. “This is a society in which there is so little space for non-governmental organizations to grow,” Ai laments. “The Party wants to take control of everything, even in areas it is incapable of dealing with.”
I am ushered past a monumental list of the 5,212 dead children, which fills the back wall of his studio. “The Communist Party are the lawmakers, but they do not follow the law, nor respect the constitution,”Ai rages. “They are constantly making contradictions in their policies. When the powers that be are like this, the whole system has no clear rationality and no clear settlement.”
The tragedy of development
Ai’s western critics fear that the western imagination could not have more perfectly dreamt up this artist. Some reach the rather misguided conclusion that the Party can confidently label Ai a charlatan, while it keeps the ‘true’ liberal political opposition in the prison cells. “I am just a normal individual. I do not want to be a hero, but I have a sense of right and wrong, and must speak out,” Ai maintains, “to put people who are a little vocal in jail is certainly not the answer. I cannot celebrate participating in such a crime, and will not remain silent on this.”
Ai may see his politics as above ambiguity; he is an iconoclast who values freedom of speech above any other right. “In every society, even in nations like the US, such independent voices are needed,” he states confidently. But it would not be cynical to say that Ai has been a gift for western editorial pages determined to further chastise China over its systemic problems. This is anathema to those western commentators who, with much hand wringing, duly deplore the idea that the west can still proclaim itself a global force for liberal enlightenment. And yet this simply glides over the very complex ways in which Ai Weiwei’s art has encountered ‘the West’, as it spilled out of the gallery, out of Beijing’s underground, and out of China.
“Many so-called democratic societies are rotten every day, as capitalism and bureaucracy eat right through them,” Ai tells me. “When we look at the case of Edward Snowden and others, you can easily see how the basic nature of the power there is to exploit, not to protect the people.” During the 1990s, Ai defaced ancient Chinese ceramics with Coca-Cola branding. This was both the start of a complex relationship with his western audience, and a repeated interaction with the idea of China. Ai’s art is no uncritical embrace of the west, and is well aware of the intertwining of the Party and American business interests that have marked the reform era.
In the wake of the suppressed Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the west for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed the soft drink as a model for China’s new propaganda: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” The underlying assumption that those who dissent from the current economic and political status quo of Chinese society have fallen head over heels for western values may well be a fantasy. Ai’s constant demand for human rights is an easy fit for any western liberal, but his critical ideology encompasses everything from urban alienation through to the Party’s collusion with big business.
Ai is especially damning over the ways in which Beijing has developed during the reform period. “Each year Beijing has, in the last 10 to 20 years, built the equivalent site of the Beijing of 1949. It has developed so fast,” Ai explains. “Now, foreigners come and they say, oh it’s so fast! But where did the tremendous social resources to develop like this come from? You can see who has built it, and who has profited from it.”
Throughout the 1990s there was a hope that China’s new entrepreneur class would transform itself into a democratic vanguard. These days, the small circle of liberal dissent is powerless in the face of the bureaucratic capitalist collusion between business elites and the one-party state. In talking to Ai, you swiftly begin to sense that the dichotomy between market and state is, in many ways, meaningless. Meanwhile, the suffering visited on the vast reserves of migrant labour who flood the cities accelerates. “Those who come to build Beijing do not have housing, do not have any protection, nor can their children get schooling here. That’s how China develops,” Ai says scornfully. “The landlord is the Party, and it keeps these people in poverty. After so many years, did it think to provide anything for these people? Medicine or education?”
For Ai, Chinese history is full of contradictions that keep threatening to break through the façade of its new century. This is encapsulated in his 2011 bronze animal head sculptures, “Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads”, installed at the Pulitzer Fountain at the foot of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. The zodiac animal heads ultimately derive from the fountain sculptures of the eighteenth century imperial Summer Palace of Yuanmingyuan in Beijing, torched and looted in 1860 by French and British soldiers. The plundered zodiac heads’ existence on the global art market has returned in recent years as a potent reminder of China’s humiliation at the hands of imperialist aggressors, while China’s demands for the repatriation of such plunder are steeped in its new nationalism. “Essentially, the Zodiac reflects the condition in which China realizes it cannot speak one sentence clearly. In every sentence it opens its mouth to speak, there are contradictions,” Ai explains. “Now, you can talk about the West taking away the Zodiac heads. Yet the Cultural Revolution destroyed such items a hundred million times over, daily. Some had to destroy the old world, others had to completely destroy the whole basis for aesthetics and philosophy.”
The responsibility of dissent
Writers and critics returning from Beijing over the last few years have been eager to regale me with stories about how the once meagre prospects of the avant-garde have escalated into an artistic ferment and cultural boom. “All these artists,” Ai tells me, “want to get into some gallery, or into some auction sale.”
Beijing’s vision of artistic modernity has left me with grave misgivings over the ways in which the global arrival of China’s culture fever has come severely lamed by both commercial and political pressures. Every Chinese artist in the aftermath of Tiananmen has had to face decisions regarding the extent to which they work within the system. And the economic logic of playing by the rules has emerged as a powerful invitation for cooptation.
The film director Zhang Yimou took this to its logical extreme, and found himself directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony. Ai Weiwei, in both performance and politics, chose a different, lonely path. “Today, it is not difficult to choose the road I took. Of course you do not have to be so extreme. But why should I look so radical? Only because we are so lacking in similar actions,” Ai exclaims. “If there were more artists and writers like this, how could the officials handle it? It’s not possible. But when there are just a few, they can easily find a way to deal with you.” For Ai, Chinese artists must “absolutely see it as their duty to dissent. If you profit, you are not bearing your responsibilities.”
While some artists have been less reserved, others are caught up in a more ambivalent dance. One of these is Xu Bing, an artist who renders the wash of traditional Chinese landscape painting in achingly beautiful installation pieces. Xu lived out a self-imposed exile in New York from 1990, where he shared Ai’s apartment. He returned to China a few years ago to take up a position as vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Such decisions are eagerly encouraged by the Party, which rewards playing the game with money and prestigious tenure. “We had lived together, talked about everything, and were so close,” Ai says bitterly. “After he returned to Beijing, he didn’t even call me.”
Another of Ai’s former friends, the director Zhao Liang, a celebrated figure of China’s independent documentary movement, also embodies what is at stake for the political future of Chinese art. Zhao’s 2009 film Petition is a furious documentation of Chinese citizens converging on Beijing, carrying various injustices for redress, and then the subsequent brutal suppression of such dissent by the government. But Zhao submitted to Chinese government pressure to withdraw his film from the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, Ai tells me, when it became apparent that it would also be screening a film by the Uighur human-rights activist Rebiya Kadeer. “Zhao Liang thought he could use it as a platform to play at politics. But I think that is a very cheap act. He does not understand what the Party is. The Party will never trust artists,” Ai warns.
As it happens, I meet Zhao Liang the following morning in Caochangdi’s Three Shadows Gallery, where he has agreed to help me with my research on Beijing’s underground artists during the 1990s. “Back then the artists were proud of their utopian way of living,” Zhao wistfully remarks, “nowadays, artists are rich and poor, but at the time all were the same, and shared ideals about both art and economics.”
But if these days Ai continues to play his dangerous games with the authorities, Zhao prefers to keep one foot dipped in the official world. In Ai’s philosophy, such compromises – the price for working inside the system, will eventually manifest themselves in the artworks themselves. “In every dictatorship you have intellectuals and artists that, in selling out their aesthetics or judgments say, only by working within the system, can we change it. But look at what they produce afterwards,” Ai angrily says. “They cannot say anything meaningful.” When I return home later that evening, I watch a video in which Ai Weiwei challenges Zhao on camera over the withdrawal of his film. The resulting confrontation is upsetting. “We were harmonized,” Zhao mumbles in reply, in a satirical expression aimed at the Chinese leadership’s declaration of a ‘harmonious society’.
After visiting Ai, I spend the afternoon wandering through Beijing’s disorientating 798 art district, not far from Ai’s Caochangdi residence. A former factory now transformed into an exhibition space, 798 is a suffocating haze of tourist shops and plush galleries that perfectly captures all of modern China’s soft power pretensions and market fever. The district’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened in 2007 with a survey of the ’85 New Wave forged by China’s radical artists’ movements. When I visited late last year, the Center was busy showcasing an exhibition of luxury Swiss watches.
Amidst such new confusion, Ai’s defiant politics remains deeply concerned for China’s artists. He continues to act as their conscience, showing them radical possibilities as they navigate the heady excesses of China’s socialist neoliberalism. “How can you be an artist, which I think is the most powerful position since you truly are an individual, and then at the same time give up that position to attempt to become a bureaucrat?” Ai despairs. “How can you not speak out, and encourage other individuals who also have the same potential to make independent judgments and beautiful work? Then at least you understand how important it is to be an individual, at its most meaningful.”
This was the lesson of Ai’s rogue “Fuck Off” exhibition back in 2000, launched as a counter-movement to the Shanghai Biennale, which asserted artistic integrity in the face of official cooptation. Did China’s artists listen? “Right and wrong is so simple, but we cannot talk about it in public. What does that mean?” Ai reflects. “So I was there, and I talked about it, once. Maybe I will be forgotten later, but at least somebody has talked about it.”