|Ai Weiwei: "The police can be very tough, but I can be tougher sometimes."|
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The artist Ai Weiwei has been beaten, imprisoned and had his every move watched by the Chinese authorities. What are they afraid of?
When spring arrives in Beijing, Ai Weiwei likes to take his three-year-old son to the local park each day for some air and exercise. But the day before I met him, their routine was interrupted. “I realised that there were two people in the park, following me,” he says. It was the secret police.
It’s been just over a year since the 54-year-old artist and activist was released from 81 days in an undisclosed jail while the government investigated him for “economic crimes” (in English, tax evasion). Ai has been keeping a low profile. Although many believe his arrest was part of a government crackdown on its critics, he has spent his time fighting the tax case and patiently counting down the days of a year-long “probation” and travel ban. He has just 40 days left when we meet but admits that when he saw the undercover cops, he “suddenly got excited”.
“Neither of them would admit that they were police. They just said they were people walking in the park. But I could tell. I grabbed one of their cameras. They were police, and they can be very tough, of course. But I can be tougher sometimes.”
After grappling with the policeman, he managed to get a memory card out of the camera. “When I got back to my home, I put the card in my computer and I saw something shocking. There were images of my assistants in the park, shot from far away, of the restaurant where I eat, of different young guys and students, in different locations. You know they do this all the time, but it is shocking to see it,” he says.
For Ai, such clashes with the government have become routine. His troubles began six years ago with the mass uptake, first of blogging, and then of microblogs such as Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Openly critical of China’s stance on human rights and democracy, Ai found, in the internet, a way to connect with hundreds of thousands of supporters. “All people have a responsibility to speak their opinion on things,” he wrote in 2006, “to state the simple principles of their lives.”
This kind of talk increasingly drew him into conflict with the government, culminating in his criticism of the corruption that saw thousands of children die when their flimsy schools collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai mounted a display of school backpacks, six of which still hang on the walls of his studio, and his researchers compiled a full list of the names of the dead. When Ai travelled to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren in 2009, an activist in Sichuan who complained loudly about what had happened, he was beaten by undercover policemen and left needing surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage.
The same year, Ai was blacklisted from all Chinese media and his blog was shut down. He continued to tweet, however, and his criticism of the government only became more pronounced.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957, the same year his father Ai Qing, one of China’s most famous revolutionary poets, fell from grace and was exiled by the Communist party. His mother, Gao Ying, worked at China’s Writers’ Association and was his father’s third wife. In a memoir in 2007, his mother remembered that her husband had simply opened a dictionary to name their son and dropped his finger on a character, pronounced Wei and meaning “Power”. Given the family’s abruptly diminished circumstances, his father switched to another character, with the same sound, but another meaning: “Not Yet”.
Ai remembers his childhood in Xinjiang, where his family lived for five years in a cave underground and his mother was once reprimanded for stealing the food of the cows she was in charge of tending. “I was aware of everything: my memory starts from then, but I did not know if it was right or wrong. When it rains as a young person you do not think it is wrong. When it rained, there were lots of leaks, and so we put cups out and the different depths of water made music and I enjoyed it,” he says.
Still, when his father was eventually pardoned, in 1976, and the family returned to Beijing, Ai was an angry teenager. And when Wei Jingsheng, one of his friends, was arrested and imprisoned for 14 years for being a leader of the Democracy Wall movement, Ai decided to leave. He told his mother that even though he could speak no English, going to New York felt like “going home”.
Ai studied at Parsons School of Design, but his teacher, the artist Sean Scully, told him his drawings had “no heart”. “At that moment I dropped my pen. And I will never pick it up again. I am quite brutal like that,” says Ai.
Instead, by the mid-Eighties, he was making art out of everyday items: coat-hangers, shoes and raincoats. He returned to Beijing in 1993 and today creates conceptual installations, designs buildings, constantly photographs and makes videos, and writes. A selection of his marble and ceramic works has recently been exhibited at the Lisson Gallery Milan and much of his time under probation has been spent working on this year’s summer pavilion at the Serpentine, another collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, with whom he worked on Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.
Together they created ten concepts before settling on the final design – an underground maze in which the contours of the previous 11 Serpentine pavilions are carved out of the earth and lined in cork. A shimmering pool of water covers the maze’s flat roof. Ai, who has visited the Serpentine, says that it was important to have a point of culture in the middle of Hyde Park, especially this year with the “other large event” happening on the other side of town. He compares it to an “archaeological dig pit” but adds: “Of course it is also ironic, because you are digging for nothing.”