Ai Weiwei: “If someone is not free, I am not free”

The Chinese authorities have tried to erase Ai Weiwei’s identity from the internet. In revenge, he has made himself into an icon of subversion. Meet our next guest editor...

Ai Weiwei inside his compound in Beijing.
Ai Weiwei inside his compound in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images

Ai Weiwei doesn’t usually dream. At least, he doesn’t remember his dreams, or if he does they are deflatingly banal. Last night, for example, he says he dreamed he was hungry and feasting on cucumbers, but in his eagerness bit his tongue and woke himself up – “Ow!”. His unconscious imaginings haven’t always been so prosaic. When Ai was detained at Beijing Capital Airport last year and held in a secret police cell for 81 days from 3 April to 22 June, he “started to have dreams like Hollywood movies. So dramatic. I started to realise, our brains have many, many levels of consciousness . . . So I start feeling sorry, maybe all those writers and great artists live in those dreams, but I don’t; I only have them in detention. Once I come out, they disappeared. Really! I become normal again.”

His subconscious might have settled, but Ai’s waking life remains fraught. He is, in the eyes of the Chinese government, a dissident and a threat. After his release from detention, he was placed under house arrest in Beijing and his design company, Fake Cultural Development Ltd, was then given a 15 million yuan (£1.5m) fine for tax evasion. He has spent the past few months with a team of lawyers fighting the fine and on 27 September their second appeal was refused by the court. The process throughout was deplorable. “The company could not place inquiries about the case or defend itself,” he writes in a recent email. “Our side of the story has not been heard in the trials. Not only did the authorities have no respect for the law and violate all the legal procedures as the case proceeded, they failed to provide any hard evidence for the charges they made.”

The course of events was predictable. The police, Ai says, had told him in private that “their aim was to discredit me because I criticised the government publicly”. When he challenged them about why the state couldn’t address his dissidence directly rather than impose the fine, they told him that people in China tended to listen to him and agree with him, and that the fine would more “effectively damage my reputation and popularity”.

If this was the aim, their strategy has had limited success: when the fine was first announced Ai’s supporters hurled banknotes over the wall into his Beijing studio. As the case went on, his team published legal documents on the internet to demonstrate the lack of transparency in the process. Few could access or read the documents behind the Chinese internet’s “Great Firewall”, but within ten days Ai had raised nearly nine million yuan from 30,000 lenders. “There’s no doubt we lost the case in court,” he says, “but we won public opinion and moral support.”

The fine is only one front of the government’s attack: though no longer under house arrest, Ai is under constant surveillance, is unable to leave the country and is airbrushed from the Chinese media. If you do an internet search for “Ai Weiwei” while in China, nothing appears. Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible. The tax case had virtually no coverage in the Chinese press. “If I was ever mentioned publicly,” Ai says in his email, “the article would disappear or the related internet account would get shut down.” It is one of the reasons he wanted to guest-edit the New Statesman: here was a chance to tell both his story and those of other Chinese dissidents, not only to a western audience but to his own compatriots (his edition will be published simultaneously in Chinese and distributed digitally in China).

Ai might be celebrated in the west and a hero to his fans in China – those who are able to skirt the Great Firewall – but the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion people, the ones living in the cities you’ve never heard of, in the factory towns making our iPhones and in the remote rural villages with no access to running water, have no idea who he is. And they have no means of finding out.

***

The studio where Ai lives and works lies behind a small green door set into a grey-brick wall on a quiet side street in Caochangdi, a district in a north-eastern suburb of Beijing. It is easily missed, though the
CCTV cameras outside are a clue. Not long ago Caochangdi was a village, miles from the city, but the sprawl of Beijing’s multi-lane highways and glassy tower blocks has pushed up against its peaceful lanes.

The area is now a designated art zone, mostly due to Ai’s presence and influence (he designed many of the galleries and studios in the surrounding streets). The door is marked by a tiny sign for his Fake company (now forcibly defunct following the tax case) and opens into a kind of paradise away from the polluted white mist of Beijing – a large courtyard, green grasses, trees, large ceramic pots and stone carvings and, emblazoned along one wall, a series of letters: “F U C K”.

Ai wanders across the courtyard wearing a baggy T-shirt and loose trousers, his uniform, and waves. Tribes of cats skitter around him (the studio cats are imperial; they own the place). We sit at a table in the courtyard with two of his assistants and drink jasmine tea, brought by a member of his staff. I give him a London 2012 baseball cap; he was a fan of the event, in its contrast to the super-organised, military-flavoured display of Chinese power of Beijing four years earlier, for which he designed the “Bird’s Nest” athletics stadium. He likes the cap, puts it on straight away, and takes a photo of himself wearing it with his iPhone. Ai often takes pictures of himself.

Later, an assistant shows me round the complex, which Ai designed and built in 1999. One half is assigned to work, the other home. He lives with his wife, the artist Lu Qing, in a space that would beguile interiors junkies: all poured concrete, white brick and double-height ceilings. There’s a dining table the length of a swimming pool, free-standing piles of books and a vast studio space lined with bowls of the hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall two years ago.

On the other side of the yard is an office space occupied by his staff – an ever-expanding and contracting team of about 12 at work on computers – a kitchen and a dining room with another long table around which everyone, including Ai, gathers for lunch. (There is a cook on site.) Many of the staff live in a dormitory building at the back. They’re a diverse group, mostly young, some on their summer break from college, Chinese, Vietnamese Canadians, Chinese Americans, Europeans, almost all of whom have travelled to this corner of Beijing specifically to work with Ai. “We’re like a family,” one says. They are also, in some ways, like a court.

Ai lives like a king, though not in the clichéd sense. It’s more that he lives like an embattled medieval monarch, trapped in a palace that is half power base, half prison. Every day, visitors pass through to pay their respects or in the hope of finding favour. In the week I’m there, journalists, fans, gallerists, film-makers, photographers, artists, old friends and new all make their pilgrimage to the studio, and Ai patiently entertains them, having his picture taken or answering the same questions he has answered in the scores of other interviews he has done this year. One asks him to play “Water” in an experimental art film; Ai shrugs and agrees.

If Ai’s studio is his court, then Twitter is his kingdom. He might not be able to leave China, and rarely leaves his neighbourhood, but he can encounter his population directly through the social media site. He tweets to his 170,000 followers continuously; commenting on the latest political twists, retweeting support from followers and championing the causes of fellow dissidents. In 2005, he was invited to set up a blog by the internet company Sina Weibo, to which he contributed regularly until it was shut down four years later. Since then Twitter has been his platform of choice.

Ai says he admires the written word more than any other form (“because the definition is so clear, so absolute”) but as a medium, for him at least, Twitter has a shelf life. He has promised to stop tweeting by the end of 2013, worried that he is repeating himself. Ai always has to find new ways to make his point.

Presiding over all this – the online realm, the Beijing court – is the man. Everything must be run past him, every decision, every document. In person he is physically imposing – grandly proportioned, a cannonball head and straggling black-and-white beard. But he moves slowly and quietly, and his voice is unpredictably gentle, an accent flecked by the 12 years he spent in New York. He is funny, too, and likes to be made to laugh: the only time I hear his voice acquire an edge is when he’s talking in Chinese to a staff member. I hear a story about a Los Angeles gallerist who once described Ai as “huggable” – the round belly and pillowy face, the boyish cheek, the silly pictures and videos of himself that he tweets out to the world. Perhaps it’s how a lot of his fans in the west see him: cuddly and victimised, a lovable hero, but to anyone who knows him in Beijing it is a laughable caricature. Ai is tough; he has had to be to survive.

***

One way of telling Ai’s story, of understanding the man, is through inheritance. It is a classic tale of fathers and sons. Ai, born in 1957, was the son of Ai Qing, a celebrated poet. In 1958, Ai Qing was denounced as being anti-Communist and sent as punishment to the remote province of Xinjiang near the Russian border. The family lived there for 16 years, the formative years of Ai’s youth, in abject conditions, at one point housed in a dugout hole in the ground. Ai Qing was forced to clean public toilets for a living; he often noted, Ai once said, that “people never stop shitting”.

Speak to almost anyone about Ai and they point to this period as the defining one of his life – not his early years as an artist distributing underground magazines in Beijing, or the period he spent in New York in the 1980s, or the decade in which he defined a new Chinese architectural language, nor even the past few years, when his art and his plight have conspired to make him a global celebrity.

In one of our conversations, when I ask why he keeps fighting the machinery of the state at great risk to himself, he reaches back to his childhood (he is generally loath to do this, given the automatic emphasis placed on it by others). “If someone is not free, I’m not free,” he says. “It is some sort of poetic feeling, but I do feel so; I am from a poetic family. When my father had to clean those toilets of this village, and people try to shame him – he had to clean about 30 toilets a day, a lot of them very messy because many of them don’t even have a roof – that’s not just a shame of him, it’s a shame of a whole society because they don’t recognise intellectual value. If artists cannot speak up for human dignity or rights, then who else will do it?”

In 1993, Ai returned to China from his stint in New York because his father was sick. Ai Qing died in 1996, and the story goes that on his deathbed he told Ai to go ahead and rage at his country. The baton was passed. Ai now has a son of his own, by a woman who isn’t his wife. He never thought he would marry (it was his wife’s idea), nor did he plan to have a child, but he has embraced the role and is startled by his offspring. His son is, at three and a half, “very smart. He understands it all. It’s shocking how alert he is . . . and he’s very political, in his dealings with people: his mum, me and the reasons
I’m not staying with them.”

Ai’s days are strictly demarcated – he works in the morning, and the afternoons are spent playing with his son in the park. His son’s presence also gives a different kind of urgency to the battle he is waging against the Chinese government. “I think if I’m not satisfied with the situation now, certainly I would not want him to be in the same situation. Either I change the situation to be in a better condition, or he has to move away . . .” So he wouldn’t want his son to grow up in China as it is? “No. No. Never. I try to make some effort, or I think he should move away. He shouldn’t experience what I have experienced.
Nobody should.”

***

Right now, Ai tells me, sitting at the head of his banqueting table, “it’s very much about China”. The “it” is ambiguous: his purpose, his life, his work. All three have combined: there is no dividing line between profession and existence. To traditionalists Ai isn’t producing much new work (and what he does create is usually made by teams of craftsmen, such as those that hand-painted the sunflower seeds for the Tate display). But then he has little interest in a conventional career, the merry-go-round of biennials and art fairs, shows and openings, the routine of pushing new pieces out into the world to be exhibited and sold. As Phil Tinari, the director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, tells me, “I don’t think he gives a fuck about how expensive his work is; his goals are in a field of competition that is so much larger and higher than the other prominent Chinese artists.”

Last night, Ai says, he sat with a table of friends – fellow artists, writers, actors – and they talked about their country. “What’s happened in the past one hundred years, the state we’re in now . . . everybody draws the same conclusion: we are worse than 70 years ago, before the Communists took power.” Democracy, freedom of speech, rationality, hope – all feel more distant than ever and have been further corrupted by the insatiable quest for wealth that has been taking place in China over  the past 20-odd years.

The Chinese now, he says, “give up everything trying to make money; to make money is to survive and to survive is to make money. The very essential structure of the law, education, environment, social justice, rights, they [the government] have to sacrifice to let them make money.” It leaves people bereft of morality, he says, and with no sense of purpose beyond their financial potential.

Ai plays straight into the heart of this vacuum. His attention is snagged by those left behind by China’s boom: the window cleaners forced to scale the clusters of spaceship-like new buildings in Beijing so vast that they have to start again at the bottom as soon as they’ve got to the top; or the construction workers who have moved to the cities from villages for work and who get to return home only once a year to children who look at them blankly; or the millions of blind people in China whom you never
see (despite the strip of textured brick that runs down every pavement, specifically there for the blind, but which often leads straight into holes in the ground or mounds of bricks because the city is permanently under construction).

He spends his waking, working time both making pieces to speak on behalf of these people – the sunflower seeds, flipping the bird at Tiananmen Square, the sculptures made out of destroyed Qing dynasty houses – and directly challenging the state that enforces these conditions. The tax case alone is like a work of performance art. Ai and his team are engaged in an interminable dance with the byzantine Chinese legal system which they know is hopeless: “From the beginning the tax case is doomed and everyone involved knows it,” he wrote to me. They doggedly persevere in their battle, not in the hope of achieving some semblance of justice, but to expose the desperate absurdity of the process.

The single event that keeps replaying in his mind and reflecting in his work, however, is the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children were killed as poorly built schools collapsed (the Chinese call it “tofu construction”). Ai’s instinctive response to the event – “on the second”, as he puts it – was to launch his own investigation into what happened. The local police refused to say exactly how many children had been killed, or who they were, so Ai recruited teams of volunteers to go from house to house and find out.

“People would ask, ‘How long are you going to do it?’ I said, ‘As long as I’m alive or as long as the students are missing. It’s very simple: I can afford it, I would love to do it and I think only by doing do you set up an example for young people.’ They all can do something. You’re not just sitting there – [saying] there’s no chance, there’s no way. Yes, there’s a chance.” The volunteers gathered the names of children killed, and their long list of 5,212 names, carefully printed, is now fixed across an entire wall of the Beijing studio, behind the banks of desks and computers. Visitors, when they come, take pictures of it.

The earthquake informs Ai’s work still – in 2009 he covered the façade of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich with 9,000 children’s backpacks spelling out a quotation from one of the victim’s mothers – “She lived happily for seven years in this world” – in Chinese characters. This year at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, in his first major US show, he is exhibiting steel rods gathered from the earthquake site. Some of the rods are copied, so that the new sculptures mimic the bent shapes of the originals; others have been painstakingly straightened as if to erase the distorting violence of the quake.

Many artists respond to the world and its politics, picking and choosing their causes. Few are like Ai, though, in the relentlessness of their response. Yet it is not heroism – much as we might like to cast it as such. Through the week I spend with Ai I ask him, in as many different ways as I can, without descending into farce, about his motivation and will to continue his fight. He gives a raft of answers, each revealing
a different slice of his character. There is Ai the clown, easily bored and fond of mischief: “My life is not dedicated for this kind of fight – I get gradually involved in each case . . . that’s about my life, my form of existence. That’s adventure, that’s a lot of curiosity.” Then there’s the Ai who is driven by impulse, who says he can’t predict himself, doesn’t fully know himself and responds to everything as he did the Sichuan earthquake, “on the second”. “You have passion, you have energy, which is a gift – you don’t know where it comes from, you drink some water, you eat some food, you keep going, you meet some people and you can make noise – that’s beautiful enough.”

If this seems verging on the disingenuous, beneath the curiosity and passion and energy there is the Ai who sees his way of living as a very simple choice: “It’s like . . . you have to be very clear when your cat is missing that you have to go out and search for that cat. Where’s this cat, you know? For two days it doesn’t come home – you don’t ask why?” He says this as one of his pets stretches across the dining table between us, lazy in the Beijing heat. For Ai, the natural desire to save a cat is what it means to be a citizen. “How do you sense you’re alive with this society? You are associated with all the details, and those are much more important for me to care about than where this painting sold, which collector, which museum – I don’t really care. I’m so privileged not to care about those things.”
 

***

There’s an argument that says Ai is able to fight the good fight precisely because he has sold many paintings over the years, because he accepted grand architectural commissions, because he built the Olympic stadium at the government’s behest (even if he later distanced himself from the Games). Fame has allowed him to be alive within his society. Yet he argues that one doesn’t lead to another: there are plenty of successful Chinese artists who don’t engage with the political system or the small fates of their fellow citizens.

Then there is another charge, of ego. The longer I spent in Ai’s studio, the more I became aware of his face. In person it is impassive, his expression inscrutable unless lit by amusement. But his face is everywhere; on T-shirts, posters, rubber stamps, magazines, photographs. A scan of his brain (showing the damage done in a beating by police in 2009) even hangs on the studio door. His name has a resonance far beyond the automatic celebrity of a successful artist or prominent rebel: Ai Weiwei is a brand.

There is an irony here, one that he naturally likes to provoke, being the creator of a design company called Fake and someone who revels in the grey area between authenticity and sham: his external self represents far more than a mere individual can plausibly be. Ai says that “it’s not about me; I don’t need to be recognised” but it would be understandable if he sought publicity, given the state’s attempts to erase his identity. Karen Smith, an expert in Chinese contemporary art and co-author of a book about Ai, tells me that “he doesn’t always see the degree to which people are aware of him outside [China]. So there’s probably a constant concern that people will forget. I think that’s why there is also a need to go on being ever more provocative to be sure that people don’t forget.”

Ai says he is amused by the government’s tireless attempts to vanish evidence of his existence, but claims he doesn’t need a name (he also shrugs off the ubiquity of his face – for publicity purposes it might as well be his foot, he says, but you have to respect convention). He sees the purpose of both his face and name in the resonance they have for other people.

To illustrate, he tells me the story of a teacher who tweeted him to say she had worn a T-shirt with his face on it to class, making her students smile. The act sent a powerful, wordless message of subversion. “It’s like the sunflower seeds,” he says. “We send out thousands of them – people receive them and say, ‘Oh they will be a gift to my fiancé’, or ‘I will make a ring for her.’ People are searching for meaning; they’re searching for an image which carries some kind of meaning.”

What happens to someone when they become a symbol? In his oversimplified form, Ai has come to represent so much to so many, both in the west and in China. He is an embodiment of freedom, a hero. It’s a responsibility and a burden, this kind of status – or at least it can seem to be. After the latest twist in his tax case he remains in limbo. As he has said in recent days, when asked if he fears being imprisoned again, “They could be standing at the gate to pick me up at any moment. But it’s also possible that they will suddenly allow me to leave the country, simply to be rid of me and to make sure that I stop making trouble for them.”

His entrapment poses a double bind, beyond that of the state’s officialdom. Ai knows that if ever he did leave, he would, to some extent, lose his raison d’être. You cannot imagine him living in London, Berlin or New York, flitting between gallery openings and art parties. What would he rage against? How much would he then mean to his Chinese followers? So he is trapped: as long as he stays, he will be an enemy of the state, watched and disrupted, limited and oppressed; but as soon as he goes, he loses the conditions that make him compelling.

The dilemma is artificial: Ai doesn’t want to leave. He wants to keep fighting. China is his life’s work. The consequences are potentially dire, but he made this choice years ago and anyway he can’t help it. His reaction is just as it would be if one of his prowling cats went astray in the backstreets of Beijing – born of instinct. “I always have to question myself . . . what happens if I spend the rest of my life in jail? Or what happens if I can never travel again? Can I afford to do that? I think, still, there is something I can do . . . As a living creature, you have to prove what you can do.”

Ai Weiwei will guest-edit next week’s issue – the “New Statesman, Made in China”. You can buy a copy of the issue at: newstatesman.com/subscribe.