Earlier this week, around 30 police officers burst into the Sichuan hotel room of one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei (艾未未). They detained him there for about half a day to prevent him from testifying in the trial of activist Tan Zuoren (譚作人), who was charged with subversion for collecting information related to deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, according to reports.
Ai, who helped design Beijing’s Olympic Stadium and whose work now commands solo museum shows in the West, has also become deeply involved in telling the truth about the Sichuan quake. Government corruption and lack of transparency are the focus of his own art project, an effort to compile a list of school children who died. Some believe his list, which now tallies 5,194 names, prompted the government to finally release a student death toll this May, more than a year after the disaster.
For his efforts, Ai’s blog has been shut down, his Beijing studio has been put under surveillance, and earlier this year unidentified men, probably from China’s National Security Bureau, paid a distressing visit to his mother.
At the same time, Ai’s stature in the art world continues to reach new heights. Last month, his first ever solo exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What, opened at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. In October, he will see a larger and fuller retrospective in another solo museum show, Ai Weiwei: So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, which will cover a 2,000m2 wing of the museum and its entire facade.
So even as Ai’s international reputation continues to bloom to a level few of his Chinese contemporaries can match, he is at the same time, as the world’s leading collector of Chinese contemporary art, Uli Sigg, noted in Tokyo last month, taking on a “dissident character.”
Moreover, Ai’s public discontent is an anomaly in the no-politics world of Chinese contemporary art. Over the last decade, China’s booming art scene has produced stars, who have sold works for millions of US dollars at auction and formed a cultural vanguard that has only been rivaled by film in its ability to bring China to the world. Three years ago, Ai, then working on the design of Beijing’s “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, might have been considered part of the movement’s elite and tacitly obsequious coterie.
But in the past year, Ai has launched his earthquake project, mounted a protest against the government-created “Green Dam” Internet filtering spyware that’s to be included with every computer sold in China, and repeatedly criticized China’s “authoritarian” government in interviews with Western media.
As Ai explained it, his motivation now is “how to build up a possibility to use my skills and my concerns to relate to the human struggle in China.”
“Why are you so concerned about society? That is always the question,” he asked rhetorically, speaking as part of an eight-hour interview marathon at the Tokyo opening of Ai Weiwei: According to What. “And my answer is simple: Because you are an artist, you have to associate yourself with freedom of expression.”
Now 52, Ai’s stout, bearded figure is by turns indomitable and understated. To the art world and media of the West, he has presented himself as a cagey, sharp-tongued and quietly subversive literatus. In China, meanwhile, he has become something of a godfather of the arts, inspiring deep respect among urban youth and culture circles while also known to lord around his influence. Think of him perhaps as a modern day Zhang Fei (張飛), the legendary warrior-general of the Three Kingdoms era, who kneeled humbly before his king but also flogged his underlings. An art world friend once told me of a dinner in Beijing at which Ai suffered an offence, then ordered the restaurant’s entire staff to bow before him and apologize.