After barely speaking to him during his 81 days of solitary confinement last summer, the men who held China’s most famous artist and dissident captive came to him with a suggestion: Focus on your art, they told him. Stay away from politics, and you’re free to make as much money as you can.
Ai Weiwei admits it was a tempting idea. Exhibitions of his avant-garde work – including a year-long display of his most famous installation, Sunflower Seeds, at the Tate Modern gallery in London – have drawn rave reviews around the world. A relatively small part of that same exhibit (the “sunflower seeds” are actually 100 million handcrafted pieces of porcelain) was sold earlier this month for $782,500 at a Sotheby’s auction, a record for one of Ai’s works.
But the deal Chinese police were offering is that one Ai says he could never take, even if he wanted to. “I see myself as someone who can’t stop talking,” the portly 54-year-old said with a grin as he relaxed last week in the relative freedom of his home on the outskirts of Beijing. He says he never actively chose to be a political dissident. But as an artist in China, he says, it’s impossible not to be.
“The officials came to me and said, ‘We’ve been thinking this over, and we think if you work hard you could become a very good artist.’ They encouraged me to focus on art, to do art shows and sell them for millions, you know, and enjoy my happy life. [They said,]‘Why do you have to bother with something you don’t understand so well? You criticize so much and make such big trouble and you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” he said, recalling one of the regular conversations he’s had with officers from Beijing’s Public Security Bureau since his release.
“I tried to explain to them that I’m artist and expressing myself is my job, my duty. That communicating is very important for me.” It wasn’t an argument that impressed the security men. “They kept telling me that I’m part of a Western strategy to change China.”
After being arrested and held incommunicado and without charge last spring, Ai was released following a remarkable international campaign that saw protests at Chinese embassies around the world. But he’s spent the past year in a new type of captivity. When the blue metal door that is the only entrance to Ai’s home and studio is shut, life inside seems normal. He is a free man within the grey stone walls, surrounded by friends, collaborators and some two dozen cats that also treat his courtyard as home. Much of his life is online, where he says he spends between eight and 20 hours a day, posting at all hours and on all topics to his popular Twitter account.
It’s only when the blue door rolls open along its rusted metal track that you remember Ai isn’t free. A surveillance camera is trained directly on the entrance, recording the faces of those who visit the best-known critic of China’s ruling Communist Party. The police have held Ai’s passport since he was seized at Beijing airport last April. He’s forbidden from leaving the Chinese capital, and is followed whenever he leaves his compound.
Even in semi-freedom, Ai is fighting accusations of tax evasion that could land him back behind bars if he doesn’t pay the $2.4-million he’s said to owe. Ai denies the charges and used Twitter to put his case before the public, who responded by donating the $1.3-million bond – some in large amounts, others by sending 100-yuan notes folded into paper airplanes over the wall of his courtyard – required to fight the case in court.
It’s the oddest of prisons for one of the most unusual political dissidents in recent history. Writers and intellectuals have challenged authorities for centuries – the tribulations of China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo recall those of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel before him – but there’s no precedent for a shock artist with 146,000 Twitter followers taking on the apparatus of an authoritarian state.