BEIJING — Three years after his imprisonment, still deprived of his passport and shut off in a bubble of official Chinese silence, Ai Weiwei, 57, neverthless appears ubiquitous everywhere else on the planet.
The Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall in Berlin devoted a huge retrospective entitled “Evidences” from April to July. His last documentary, Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50 (November 2013), about the absurd legal battle that followed his liberation, was played at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and at another festival in Hong Kong in March.
In June 2013, he was remotely part of a cinema jury in Sweden, watching the films online. To occupy his empty seat, he was depicted as a Ming chair that he personally customized: a transversal bar prevents sitting in the chair. The former political prisoner regularly transmits video messages to the organizers of his exhibitions abroad, explaining that the government never gave him back his passport and that he never got any explanation.
Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days in 2011 and questioned repeatedly by authorities. His prison guards told him that he was going to stay 10 years inside. Liberated with the condition that he was banned from traveling outside the country, Weiwei transformed this alienation into a leitmotiv in the representation of his perpetual confrontation with a Kafkaesque system that’s in turns brutal and apathetic, meticulous and muddled, in its efforts to clip his wings.
Since November 30, he regularly leaves a bunch of flowers in the basket of a locked-up bike in front of the number 258 of Caochangdi (pronounce: “tsaotchangdi”), the artistic area of Beijing where he designed most of the buildings. Then, he takes a picture and puts it on Twitter or Instagram. He says he will keep on doing this until he gets his passport back.
Photo: Ai Weiwei
“A few times, I’ve been asked to remove the flowers on the bike. The way I react to that depends of the way they ask. If they are rude, I answer firmly. The last time my answer was that I will continue no matter what,” he tells us at Fake Studio, his workshop in a recent morning.
Escape to Alcatraz?
He is wearing his Alcatraz uniform, a gift from the infamous former American prison, where he will unveil exclusive works of art in September in an unprecedented exhibition.
After his liberation in June 2011, Ai Weiwei signed a commitment in which he promised not to criticize the government, detail his detention or give any interviews. Nowadays, he says that he signed this document under distress, and that such a piece of paper has therefore no legal standing.
Who would have thought that, at the 2013 Venice Biennale, he would dare to show a detailed, realistic 3D reconstruction of various life scenes in jail? Or to sing a heavy-metal version of his ordeal in a music video?
“When it comes to doing something very big and serious, strangely, they keep quiet and don’t know what to do," he explains. "In reality, it’s often like that in China."
Still, the artivist has to deal regularly with the authorities. In 2012, tired of the cameras that were constantly spying him, Ai Weiwei placed cameras at his place to post his daily life online. The international buzz was such that he accepted to remove the cameras when the police asked him to – but the message had already spread.
The same year his documentary Ai Weiwei’s Appeal was to be released in Hong Kong, authorities came to remove the film: “The problem is that they always arrive too late! I told them they should have warned me earlier, because if I was going to remove the film, it would have an even bigger impact! That would be worse for them! In fact, they are not really trying to block me; they have to show they obey. What matters to them is that I don’t participate in political discussions."
He continues, "They tell me: ‘You have a lot of influence, you are famous, others can criticize but you can’t." Actually, I don’t want to criticize for the sake of criticizing. It can become repetitive. Of course, it is my responsibility to give my opinion on serious issues. But there are many other things I would like to do, like traveling with my son. Or settle down and write...”
Ai Weiwei’s omnipresence abroad is proportional to his invisibility in his own country. Censors prohibit the media from mentioning his name, he cannot appear on Chinese social networks and he lives and works in premises where freedom is very fluid, where nothing can be taken for granted.
It is Ai Weiwei’s paradox: the West is his yang, his room for freedom, light and action that seems to be in perpetual expansion. China is his yin, his place of obscurity and isolation where his creative genius can blossom even though his outsider and anti-star status gives him a certain aura in civil society.
Ai Weiwei gives simple explanations for his hyperactivity. He tells us that part of why he has exhibited so many times is that he simply has a lot to say: “Every single one of my activities, of my exhibitions or displays of my works comes from a will to express myself. I am not a politician, I am an artist. I express myself therefore I am.”
His art is fed by communication. He intervenes wherever he can: on foreign social networks with his quick performances and commentaries, illustrated or not, the way only he knows how. Then he intervenes in the only space that is open to him: museums and national galleries.
Another side matters, he says: “Every time I do an exhibition or finish a work, I always tell myself that maybe it is the last time I ever will create something. And it is the opportunity to express as strongly as I can all the things I have to say, to not have any regret.”
He says that he already had this feeling inside him before his detention, but it has grown more intense since. “They tried all forms of pressure on me, they destroyed buildings I built (his studio in Shanghai in 2010), they hit me (in Chengdu in 2009 while he was coming to testify at the trial of an activist). They soiled my reputation by accusing me of having stashed away a huge amount of money from the authorities. They keep on intimidating me, as well as the people I know. I’ve lived all those experiences, this nightmare, for years. There is also what my father went through (the poet Ai Qing persecuted during the Cultural Revolution). Anyway, the person you have in front of you cannot change that. When I communicate with those people, I make the message go viral because I am who I am and I can’t change. I think they have more or less accepted this idea and have given up on trying to change me.”
What Ai Weiwei has lived inspires his performances and installations from the most simple and insignificant in appearance – like the morning bouquet in front of his studio- to the most ambitious ones like the exhibition for Alcatraz in San Francisco.
“It will be about the detention. Necessarily, I will talk about the people deprived of freedom, and the meaning of punishment," he says. "It is true that in my creations, I try to stage my reality. This link with my situation is natural. There is a part of danger in talking about it but this is my determination. Winding up in the spotlight, I became some kind of activist.”