“Art can be a kind of weapon in our current time. It has the function of pushing progress in social justice, fairness and reason,” said Wu Yuren, another dissident artist who recently spent nearly a year in jail after leading a protest march by Beijing artists protesting against the demolition of their studios. “The most interesting thing about Ai is not his artistic side but his personal behaviour. For example, when the government persecuted him groundlessly, he was able to reverse the situation and put the public spotlight on it. He turned it into a citizen movement. That’s why people support him.”
In person, Ai can sometimes seem weary of the fight, or at least of talking about it. During an hour-long conversation over glasses of oolong tea, he mixes long and engaged answers about his art and philosophy with curt and practised ones about his politics. He’s resigned to the fact the police will call on him after they see he’s done a foreign media interview and will interrogate him about the answers. While he pulls few punches, he nonetheless seems more restrained than in past interviews, as though he doesn’t want to give the police any new reasons to punish him.
Ai says he tries to keep an even keel, not to get too excited when he reads the reviews of his show at the Tate, or too down when the police haul him in for another chat. But he admits he was shocked by how he was treated during his detention last year, a period he’s only begun talking about.
“I’m not surprised they punished me, but I’m very much surprised by the way they punished me. They openly told me there are no laws they will follow, there are no rules. … I was treated more like a spy, espionage, and when you’re in that position, nothing can protect you. You’re [seen as]against the state’s interests. I’m surprised they see me that way, that they see me as dangerous, as a terrorist.”
Ai acknowledges that the government’s overreaction to him has helped fuel the international interest in him, and by extension his art. But he also says that being a political activist saps much of his creative energy.
“If I walk in the park I see people, secret police, peeking from the woods, taking pictures and photographs from far away. It’s very strange. Why do they still do that? I have been detained. All my activities are so open and transparent. I speak all my mind in the media. Why do they still have to spy on me or peek in on me? Sometimes I get very frustrated,” he says, his forehead wrinkling in irritation.
“People always ask me, ‘How much time do you have for art?’ I have no time for art, is the truth. I just have to handle it. I have to work – no holidays, no weekends, wake up early at 6 a.m., [go to]sleep always past midnight. Every day I work three days.”
He says nothing for a long time, then resumes his answer. “I always believe you have to work hard while you can. Very soon you might lose interest. Or not be able to work.”