China's weighty, witty Ai Weiwei


Having made a career out of provoking the Chinese government, China’s most famous artist now find himself in police custody, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

Soldiers walk by behind her, Beijingers wearing Mao suits pass by on three-wheelers, tourists take pictures: Ai’s photo is rich with meaning, controversial, funny and shocking. It encapsulates so much about China’s most famous artist, who is in police custody facing charges of “economic crimes”.

The 53-year-old thrives on controversy in a way that was always going to set him at odds with the all-powerful Communist Party, which runs China with an iron fist. Having made a career out of provoking the Chinese government, it now looks like this particular “maverick” will have to “pay the price”, as a state-run newspaper put it in an editorial this week.

Ai gave a wide-ranging interview to The Irish TimesMagazine in January, in which he spoke of how he feared his days as a free man were numbered and sought to explain why he spends so much time sailing close to the wind on issues of censorship and human rights.

“Democracy is not a condition we can really choose or not choose: it’s absolutely necessary,” he said during the interview. “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, and sometimes it can even be dramatic, but I believe what we do is very necessary and essential. It is something that we cannot really avoid by living in China.”

In recent weeks a crackdown by Chinese authorities on dissident behaviour has followed the “Jasmine Revolution” protests in the Middle East. Ai was involved in documenting the arrests of prominent artists, lawyers, writers and activists on his Twitter account, where he has more than 70,000 followers.

No one knows where Ai is or what he will be charged with, but it is certain he has no confidence that he will be treated fairly by the legal system. “After so many years, the judicial system cannot try one case independently. They create more problems than they resolve,” he said. “Under the police, there is abuse of power, and violence, and so many cases where you cannot see the truth behind it.”

In 1978 Ai co-founded the Stars, an avant-garde art group, with Huang Rui and Ma Desheng. The following year the Stars held an unauthorised exhibition in a park across from the national gallery, which was shuttered by police. This transformed the group into a domestic and international sensation.

Ai left China and went to the US, where he lived for 12 years. He discovered Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns at the Parson’s School of Design and the Art Students’ League, and became friends with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, before returning to China, in 1993.

Once home he helped to establish the experimental artists’ Beijing East Village. He co-founded the Chinese United Overseas Artists’ Association and at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 he co-curated the controversial Fuck Off exhibition. He has his critics – many say he is a publicity hound – but just as many say he is a genius.

In his famous series Study of PerspectiveAi’s hand is shown flipping the middle finger to the Forbidden City. It has clearly subversive elements, but the series also has Ai giving the finger to the White House, the Hong Kong skyline, the Berlin Reichstag, the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican. He is democratic in his iconoclasm.

As the son of the revered poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and sent to a labour camp, Ai has always been able to work with relative freedom in China. He was even involved in the construction of the Olympic stadium, and it is still incredible to think he could have been allowed within a kilometre of the construction site. He was uncomfortable with the role and was subsequently critical of the structure, saying the 2008 Olympics were being used to mask China’s social and political problems, and as a showcase for political power. In October Ai exhibited Sunflower Seeds, consisting of 100 million porcelain seeds at Tate Modern in London.

Although his arrest on Sunday was a shock, it was not a surprise. In 2009 police burst into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him so badly that surgeons in Munich later had to drill two holes in his head to stop a bleed in his brain.This January his Shanghai studio was demolished.

He has spoken of how he did not expect any seismic change to happen in 2011, because it was Year of the Rabbit, not an auspicious one when it comes to major events, but that next year, the Year of the Dragon, would be different. “After the Year of the Rabbit is the Year of the Dragon, and I think that’s a moment,” he said. “This year a lot of rabbit business, but Year of the Dragon is always a big year.”

His comments are guaranteed to irk the Chinese authorities.

Curriculum vitae

Who is he?China’s most famous and most controversial artist.

Why is he in the news?Ai was stopped from boarding a flight in Beijing last Sunday and taken away by police.

Why is that significant?Human-rights advocates see it as marking a deepening crackdown. The Chinese government says he will be charged with “economic crimes”. Chinese authorities sometimes try to silence critics by accusing them of tax violations.

Most likely to say?“China needs freedom of speech, democracy and human rights. There is no alternative.”

Least likely to say?“I fully endorse the Communist Party of China and all of its actions. Where do I sign up?”