China's maverick artist Ai Weiwei continues to fight

Ahead of next week’s premiere of Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, James Langton asseses how years of dissent and activism brought ‘the world’s most powerful artist’ to his current stand-off with the Chinese government.

Portrait of Ai WeiWei.
Powered by automated translation

More than two decades ago, resistance to China's grey men of the Politburo Standing Committee was symbolised by an anonymous figure clutching shopping bags as he blocked a line of T-59 battle tanks on their way to crush the student protesters of Tiananmen Square.

Times have changed. Today those same grey men have embraced a new orthodoxy of free market Marxism that promises to enrich all, but some a great deal more than others.

Instead, in world that is now wired, digitalised, networked and interconnected even inside the Great Firewall of China, a new kind of rebel is called for. A twinkly-eyed middle aged Buddha with a wispy beard who defies the authority of the Chinese Communist Party not with carrier bags but one hundred million hand painted ceramic porcelain seeds.

As an artist, Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known for two wildly different projects; the design of the Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games - an event he subsequently denounced as "disgusting" - and Sunflower Seeds, installed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London in 2010, and described in part as a commentary on Maoist propaganda that frequently portrayed the Chinese people as sunflowers, bowing their heads towards the radiance of the Great Teacher.

For those who want to learn more about Ai the activist, next Thursday (Oct 18) offers a chance to see the Gulf Premier of the award winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Ai will not attend the screening, just as he did not attend the opening last week of the first major American retrospective of his work in Washington DC. With the Chinese authorities continuing to hold his passport, on the grounds that he owes millions in back taxes, Ai is not going anywhere.

Such restrictions have done little to silence his voice. Ai is a prolific user of social media who says "Twitter is my city" and has 120,000 followers on Facebook. On Twitter, his followers have been known to refer to him as "Ai God", an epithet that is unlikely to improve his reputation to the regime as a troublemaker who does not believe he is bound by the normal laws and conventions of China.

Yet the odd thing about Ai is that that it took him so long to rebel. Certainly he had all the right street credentials. Both parents were prominent poets, sent to clean toilets in a labour camp after his father Ai Qing was denounced in a purge of supposed "rightist" elements. Weiwei was one year old at the time. After his parents were rehabilitated and allowed to return to Beijing, family life resumed, with Ai eventually enrolling in the Beijing Film Academy, enjoying the fruits of the reforms and liberalisation of the economy that followed the death of Mao in 1976.

Between 1981 and 1993, Ai lived in New York City, taking various art courses while hanging out with the boho crowd, but also developing a passion for blackjack and developing a fearsome reputation for his card skills at the casinos of Atlantic City (his detention in 2011 prompted the memorable headline in The New York Times: "Arrest of Chinese Artist Angers US Blackjack Players").

When he returned home in 1993, as a result of his father's illness, it was to become part of an emerging club of young artists whose edginess (and the increasingly high prices their work commanded) seemed to reflect China's urgent desire to race away from the era of the Little Red Book and towards the age of the iPhone.

Such dissent that emerged in his work during this period seemed to carry if not the rubber stamp of official approval, then at least an understanding that Ai was not treading on too many toes.

His 1996 Breaking of Two Blue-and-White Dragon Bowls was a performance work in which the artist smashed antique porcelain as a commentary on the destructiveness of the long discredited Cultural Revolution. A study in perspective was a series of photographs in which he raised a middle finger at landmarks from the White House to Tiananmen Square.

But if some acts of dissent were now to be sanctioned, Ai was to discover that the state's tolerance toward past misdeeds did not extend to the follies of the present. In May 2008, a 7.98 magnitude earthquake devastated Sichaun Province, with the tremors felt as far as Beijing. Among the estimated 70,000 dead were thousands of students, killed as their classrooms collapsed on top of them.

The tragedy completed Ai's transformation from artist to activist. Working as part of a self-styled "citizens investigation", Ai gathered the names of over 5,000 students whose deaths were attributed to shoddy building methods used in schools, or what he called "tofu construction."

Publishing the names in a blog and the wall of his offices in Beijing on the first anniversary of the 'quake, Ai was immediately subject to state harassment. His blog was shut down and deleted, surveillance cameras mounted outside his house and his mother questioned by police.

That August he was due to testify in the trial of civil rights activists facing charges over another investigation into the earthquake. Instead he was arrested and taken into custody, where he claimed to have been badly beaten.

A month later, Ai sought treatment for severe headaches he was experiencing while attending the opening of an exhibition of his work in Munich. Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, formed as a result of the trauma he had suffered earlier. With the operation, he was told afterwards, he could have died.

By then, any media reports about Ai almost inevitably made reference to his work on the Birds Nest stadium. But Ai himself had now firmly distanced from the Olympics, castigating others, like the film directors Steven Speilberg and Zhang Yimou, who were involved in the opening ceremonies.

"All the s***** directors in the world are involved," he complained. It's disgusting. I don't like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless."

Ai was now officially an enemy of the state. In December 2010, he was blocked from travelling abroad for the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. The following month, his studio in Shanghai was demolished on the orders of the authorities, who claimed he did not have planning permission.

Last April, Ai was detained at Beijing airport. For a while no one knew where he was being held, until an announcement that he was being held for "economic crimes". An editorial in a state-run newspaper, the Global Times warned that "Ai Weiwei chooses to have a different attitude from ordinary people toward law. However, the law will not concede before 'mavericks'."

Released in June after 81 days and with a year's probation, Ai was then hit with a tax bill for the equivalent of nearly Dh9 million. He has refused to pay, although donors have already sent him over Dh7 million, including cash folded into paper aeroplanes and floated over his garden wall. Last week he lost his appeal against the judgement.

Which brings us to the current stand off. Ai's passport was withheld while he was on probation. It is meant to have been returned, but has not been. The artist, meanwhile refuses to be silenced. He is under a gag order that is meant to prevent him talking to journalists or posting on Twitter but continues to do both relentlessly.

For the Chinese government, this is something of a dilemma. Earlier this month, officials revoked the business licence of his company, Fake Cultural Development, presumably hoping that it would hit his pocket. Little hope. At auction last year, just a fraction of those famous 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds were selling for the equivalent Dh20 each.

Perhaps Ai will follow in the footsteps of Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil rights activist who was allowed to depart for the US in May. More likely he will stay and fight. In the West he is a celebrity, named as the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview magazine. In China, he is invisible. "Stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom," he wrote in an article for The Guardian newspaper in June. "They can delay that freedom but they can't stop it."


May 18 1957 Born in Beijing to Ai Qing and Gao Ying, both poets, who are banished

1975 The family return to Beijing, where Ai enrols in film school

1981 Moves to New York, studying art

1993 Returns to China joins a group of rising young artists

December 2008 Probes deaths of over 5,000 schoolchildren in earthquake

September 2009 Undergoes emergency brain surgery after being police beating

January 2011 His studio is demolished for not having the right permits

April 2011 Arrested at Beijing Airport, three months laterfined Dh9 million for unpaid taxes

October 2012 China refuses to return his passport for trip to the US