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Ai Weiwei Is Embracing the Beautiful Emptiness

In this FRONTPAGE feature, we spent time in the Berlin studio of the legendary Ai Weiwei. Though heralded as one of the most important contemporary artists working, he tells us why he hasn't "accomplished anything."

Down a cold, cement staircase and through a cavernous tunnel somewhere in Berlin, Ai Weiwei sits quietly at a long table in a brick hall. It’s early, and as the city outside begins to wake up, Ai is busy scrolling through his phone and sipping tea. A few feet away, sunlight streams into an open courtyard set two floors below ground. There’s a serenity and completeness to the scene because, in a way, this former brewery turned underground art studio is a perfect metaphor for the artist’s journey. Here, in what he calls his “underground temple,” Ai has found peace and come full circle.

In 1967, decades before he would become known as one of the world’s greatest living artists, Ai’s childhood was spent in another underground shelter. This one was cramped, not sprawling, and was infested with lice and situated in the harsh desert region of China known as Little Siberia. He shared this abode with his father, the late poet Ai Qing, who had been a renowned artist in China for years. But that all changed in 1957, the year of Weiwei’s birth, as the Anti-Rightist Campaign by Chairman Mao Zedong began a ruthless purge of intellectuals who were critical of the state. After rising to fame for his poetry, Ai Qing became one of the 300,000 intellectuals who were forced into hard labor. For years, Weiwei and Qing slept in a square hole dug into the ground whose roof was a mix of tamarisk branches, rice stalks, and grassy mud. Weiwei watched his father struggle, as Qing was forbidden from writing and endured the daily humiliation of being forced to clean toilets, yet this harsh environment never broke Weiwei’s spirit.

“We have to think of life as almost like a testing ground to see how far you can go, and how it's been given to you for you to realize yourself,” he explains as he pours another cup of tea. “That's a real opportunity. Always to think whatever the condition you are in, you may not necessarily understand it, [but] it has a profound meaning. So gradually you grab a few lessons.” For Ai, the lessons learnt from this period have provided a steady flame for his art. Over a span of decades, his work has chafed roughly against the forces of Communism in his Chinese homeland, the hostile ambivalence to the plight of migrants, and the invisible hand of capitalism, whose power, he says, has “sculpted our time.” But the most evident through-line has been his constant grappling with the way governments can so easily suppress the humanity of large swathes of people, or erase a country’s rich history to maintain their grip on power.

In 2017, as a record 68.5 million people became forcibly displaced because of political unrest, Ai brought attention to the plight of these refugees through both documentary film (Human Flow, 2017) and by affixing over 14,000 life jackets to six columns on Berlin’s Konzerthaus that had been used by people attempting to flee to Europe through the Greek island of Lesbos (Safe Passage, 2016). He has used capitalism to interrogate Europe and America’s insatiable urge for Chinese mass production with a display of 1179 frames of the steel bikes used by Shanghai’s working class (Forever (Bicycles), 2003).

In one of his most famous installations, “Sunflower Seeds”, which ran from October 12, 2010 to May 2, 2011, he filled the sprawling Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern museum with 100 million hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. Produced over a two year period by 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen, China, the seeds were a reference both to modern “Made in China”-xenophobia but also — and tellingly — to the brutal crackdown by Zedong that forced his father into hard labor. In the Cultural Revolution, propaganda posters likened Zedong to the sun and had sunflowers turning towards him, but in Little Siberia, the exchange of sunflower seeds among the exiles was a small act of rebellious compassion. By filling one of the world’s most famed museums with millions of these seeds, Ai cast a new light on this era in his country’s history — like a sunflower rising from the darkness towards the sun.

It’s this work more than any other that is key to understanding Ai Weiwei, because by the end of the London exhibition, Chinese authorities had locked him away in a Beijing detention center. Officially, Ai had been arrested on charges of tax evasion, but days turned to weeks without an appearance from the artist. His studio was raided, eight employees were held for questioning, and his own family were at a loss for where he’d been taken. Human rights groups sounded alarms and the world asked “Where is Ai Weiwei?” 81 days later, the artist re-emerged profoundly changed.

It was this arrest and disappearance that capped years of mounting escalation by the Chinese government against him that had begun in the aftermath of 2008’s Sichuan earthquake. The tragedy claimed the lives of over 80,000, but it was the deaths of over 5,000 children as a result of shoddy school construction that caught Ai’s attention. In an attempt to honor the victims — and fight back against censorship that sought to cover up the tragedy — Ai began a Citizen Investigation Group to name the children. In response, the government arrested group members, deleted names they’d written down, confiscated belongings, shut down the blog, and in August 2009, Ai was beaten so severely by police in Chengdu that he was forced to undergo emergency brain surgery.

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While a brush with death could have scared off other artists, the beating only solidified Ai’s resolve — and provided material for his 2011 documentary So Sorry, which cataloged all of the events, including the assault. Two months after his surgery, Ai opened a retrospective show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, whose entrance was adorned with 9,000 children’s backpacks spelling out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – a quote from the mother of a child who died in the earthquake. The next year, in 2010, Ai released a two-hour video titled Hua Hao Yue Yuan (or Blissful Harmony) that recorded the experience of two Chinese activists who had been arrested and abused by state officials after protesting the Chinese Communist Party. It was not the artist’s first documentary criticizing the Chinese government, but it became one of the most widely shared.

After years of balancing precariously on a razor's edge with a series of works critiquing the Chinese government, the government began forcefully pushing back in 2011. One of his art studios was demolished by authorities in January, and the opening of a solo show in Beijing was postponed (and subsequently canceled) because of the “political sensitivity” of his work. The series of events would lead him to announce plans to open a studio in Berlin and declare that he was “simply at a loss for how I can continue to work [in China].” Only a week later, the artist’s nearly three month disappearance into the detention center began.

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In the years since his arrest, Ai has used his arrest as inspiration for both documentary films (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 2012) and installation work (S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013), but the arrest also altered the trajectory of his life in more personal ways. As Ai sits in the same Berlin studio he’d announced a week before his disappearance, he recalls the threat from officials as they let him go. “We don't have to release you," they said. "Yes, you got arrested and also you are released, but please understand that we don't have to release you. You can stay there forever." It was this threat that inspired 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, his sprawling 2021 memoir that covered both Weiwei’s life and the life of his father, Qing. Written for his son, Ai Lao, to “let my son know who his father is,” it was also a reaction to Weiwei watching so many Chinese friends be jailed for their activism. “Their children grow up wondering. They hear all kinds of accusations. They don't know who their father is. I know many children [whose] father was a political prisoner. They get lost.”

For Ai, looking forward is as essential as looking back. History and future are intertwined, yet humanity stumbles forward as if with permanent blinders. “We refuse to recognize our past, not only in the US, but in the whole world. We develop so fast, we try to erase what they have been through. The problem is not just them, or him, or she, it's us.” The importance of both preserving and learning from history has always flowed through the artist’s oeuvre, but in the last few years, his output has become sharper as he looks forward, imagining what the future holds for a world so set on forgetting the lessons of the past. In 2017’s Hansel and Gretel installation in New York, a mix of CCTV cameras, projections, facial recognition software, and drones tracked every move that visitors made. There was no way of knowing it at the time but, a mere three years later, the installation would take on eerie prescience amid the pandemic. In his 2020 film Coronation, the entirety of the Wuhan lockdown is documented by ordinary citizens as untold levels of surveillance and control are put in place by China’s government.

There’s a cynicism flowing like a brook beneath Ai’s work, but that’s to be expected after decades spent creating art like his. Since his earliest years, he has witnessed the myriad ways a powerful minority can maintain control of the masses. Prone to proverb, he explains his view of this systemic rot through an apple. No matter how fresh the apple is, time will rot it, because “no freshness can keep forever,” and Ai always sees the rot. Even his move to Berlin in 2015 was short-lived;. During his period in the German capital, Ai found Germany to still live in what he calls an “authoritarian mental state.”

“If you go deeper to their political situation, their cultural situation, and even law, you realize that basically they change into a nice jacket. Very, very flashy. Very attractive. And it's good. But as we used to say, you have a new glass with old wine,” he says, before noting that his criticism isn’t rooted in hatred. “I'm being critical because I wish it [would] become better. I have no problem. I don't hate anybody – even China I don't hate. I really wish they could be much better.” Through criticism, a system – no matter how rotten — can begin to be fixed. “If we all say how great some things are, if we have the same opinion, that's [when] danger comes.”

It’s this principle that helps to explain his constant stream of work. Ai isn’t just an artist, he is a mirror. “I reflect the reality, I don't make the reality,” he explains. “Even the mirror can be shattered but, still, the pieces can have that relative reflection of reality.” The hope, of course, is that by holding up the mirror long enough, things may change. But when asked about his hope for the future, Weiwei is blunt. “We consumed the future already. To get to prosperity, we consume the future. We consume the poorest. People exploit their rights and it’s really a monster. Humans are really monsters.” The problem, as he sees it, is that greed, short-sightedness, and selfishness are weaknesses that are deeply rooted in everyone – not just those in power.

The rotten apple isn’t just authoritarianism, it’s capitalism. “Every fingerprint of our time has capitalism’s imprints on it,” Ai laments. Even the industry he navigates has sped up its descent into a mire of capitalist muck through the rise of get-rich-quick schemes like NFTs that make art less about the message and more about the collectability. As the work matters less and less than the resale value, an artist like Weiwei feels like more of a rarity. His work sells, of course, but every piece that he creates is imbued with a purpose and a message.

While the world might crown him one of the greatest living artists, Ai Weiwei will never embrace the accolades. He creates because he must. “I do projects just like a cat walks the way a cat walks,” he explains. “It’s my nature.” For Weiwei, this natural search for meaning and harmony will never end. “I appreciate [that] at the age of 64, I'm still unsettled, unclear, and still feel I have not accomplished anything,” he admits as he pours another cup of tea, ensconced in his quiet sanctuary. “I still have this beautiful emptiness in my mind, and that I treasure.”

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