Some criticize Ai’s provocations as crude. Among his most famous pieces is a photograph of his middle finger extended toward Tiananmen Square, as well as a nude self-portrait with only a stuffed “grass mud horse” (a fictional creature that’s an anti-censorship symbol in China, the name translates into an expletive) covering his genitals. But they have unquestionable mass appeal, both inside and outside China. Influential London-based ArtReview magazine captured the dilemma Ai creates for the Communist Party, naming him the “most powerful” artist in the world in 2011.
Ai is indeed powerful, but he’s also vulnerable, as his disappearance into police custody last year dramatically illustrated. His current limbo – which sees him simultaneously overexposed and heavily censored – could only be possible in the China of 2012. He’s free to do many things because the government says he is. But he has no inalienable rights that the authorities can’t take away at any minute.
Art and politics have always been entangled for Ai. His father, Ai Qing, was one of China’s most revered poets until he was denounced as a “rightist” in the late 1950s, and deported to remote Xinjiang province, assigned to clean public toilets. His son worked in the fields during the 16 years the family lived in Xinjiang before Ai Qing was rehabilitated after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Back in Beijing, Ai Weiwei channelled his anger at the system through Stars, a group of artists who rose to prominence during the short-lived “Beijing Spring” of the late 1970s.
Ai left China soon after that hopeful period ended, moving to New York in 1981 to study art (and play blackjack, another passion). But the politics of home were always on his mind. He protested outside United Nations headquarters in 1989, as the tanks rolled in to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
He returned to China in 1993 after his father fell ill and worked for a time within the system, most famously helping design the showpiece Bird’s Nest stadium that hosted the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics. But another tragedy brought him back into conflict with the government.
A massive earthquake struck China’s southern Sichuan province just 10 weeks before the Olympics began, killing 88,000 people, including thousands of schoolchildren who were crushed when their poorly built schools collapsed. Infuriated by the lack of basic safety standards, Ai and writer Tan Zuoren began compiling a database of all the children who had died in their classrooms, and launched an investigation into what they called the “tofu” construction of the schools. The authorities retaliated, charging Tan with subversion and sentencing him to five years in jail. When Ai travelled to Sichuan to testify on his friend’s behalf, he was beaten by plainclothes thugs who broke into his hotel room.
It became a defining moment for the artist, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the attack and eventually needed emergency brain surgery. Today, the only pieces of Ai’s work on the otherwise barren walls of his studio are an oversized list of the 5,196 names of the schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan quake, and a collection of six stylized children’s backpacks. (In 2009, he assembled thousands of backpacks for an art installation in Munich honouring the children.)
“My art comes from my understanding of the world in front of me, which includes the politics,” Ai says when asked how his battles with the government have affected his artistic output. “It includes all the human struggles – mental, aesthetic, moral, philosophical, and of course, in China right now, politics is part of it. But I don’t have to put politics in my art. It’s all part of it.”
His most recent exhibit was inspired wholly by his situation. With his life already under constant surveillance, Ai decided this spring to let the whole world watch, setting up four webcams around his home and studio and broadcasting his movements 24 hours a day on the website weiweicam.com. The police quickly ascertained that the joke was on them, and demanded that weiweicam be shut down just 46 hours after it went online.