Chinese artist Ai Weiwei may have helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium but, as Rowan Callick discovers, he’s anything but a party stooge
THE blank wall surrounding Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary, monumental reworking of a siheyuan , or courtyard home, in the northeastern wastelands of Beijing, carries this address: ‘‘ 258 Fake’’. Ai has a nose for phonies and no patience with them. Official art in China today: it’s phony.
And as for the Beijing Olympic Games, for which he helped design the remarkable national stadium: it can go to hell.
Ai, the most prominent contemporary artist working in China, is unique; he’s also one of a Chinese type: unbowed, witty in a laconic way, at ease with himself while not at all self- absorbed, curious about everything, and impeccably polite.
How does he see himself? He casts around in extraordinarily articulate English: ‘‘ Maybe a confused man,’’ he says. ‘‘ Sometimes withdrawn. Sometimes angry. I don’t know how to describe myself . . . I’ve been called many, many titles, and I practise in many fields. But I’ve not grown used to any of them.
‘‘ If you’re asking about my profession, yes I’m an artist. That’s best, it leaves little to explain. Art today is about attitude and lifestyle. The rest follows.’’
He inherited his quietly questioning disposition from his father, he says. ‘‘ I grew up in a very strong political background. It was a very hardcore communist nation and my family was in a damaged condition.’’
His father, Ai Qing, was one of China’s most famous poets. ‘‘ He could be quite emotional and very direct in expressing his feelings. But he didn’t have much political skill and wasn’t too practical. I’m very much like him.’’
Ai Qing was lured into some overly direct expression by Mao Zedong’s ‘‘ let a hundred flowers bloom’’ campaign that sought out the views of artists and thinkers and then rounded up those branded as rightist. He and his family were exiled from their Beijing home for almost 20 years from 1958, first to the remote northeast, then to Xinjiang in the equally remote northwest.
Ai Qing, whose poetry is again widely available and well known in China, died 12 years ago. ‘‘ I never had a chance to hear his poems at school or even inside the family,’’ Ai Weiwei says. ‘‘ He was an enemy of the state, his poetry was forbidden and burned by the whole nation.’’
A friend later told Ai Qing that he had hidden some of his poetry under a large pot used for storing rice. From this makeshift archive, some of Ai Qing’s poetry was restored.
Ai Weiwei’s favourite poem by his father begins: ‘‘ Snow falls on China’s land/ Cold blockades China.’’
Even Premier Wen Jiabao now quotes from Ai Qing, especially the couplet: ‘‘ Why are my eyes always brimming with tears?/ It is because my love for this land is so deep.’’
‘‘ We knew our father was famous and influential, but anti- revolutionary,’’ Ai says. ‘‘ He had to do hard labour and admit his crime. They accused him and beat him and forced him to say what he had done wrong. So there’s no glamour there for me ( in dissidence).
‘‘ He was a person who liked very much to read and think, he didn’t explain himself to us. He was very much alone. Sometimes at midnight, someone would sneak in and bring a bowl of noodles, a treasure for us, and run away in the darkness. That was just life. A life anywhere in China. And not just for one or two years, for decades.’’
When life changed for the better, with Deng Xiaoping’s kai fang or open door policy, Ai Weiwei — now back in Beijing — attended the film academy there with directors Chen Kaige ( Farewell My Concubine ) and Zhang Yimou ( House of Flying Daggers ).
He was catapulted into public life when he joined the Stars group of avant- garde artists who showed their work in Beijing in 1979, just as economic freedom — but not political or artistic freedom — was breaking the old Maoist mould. The group believed every artist was a star, emphasising individuality in contrast to the collective identity of the Red Guards.
‘‘ Artists believe we have a way to carry our feelings, to express ourselves and our own world views. This may be something quite small, but still to be described as performing an illegal act, or even as a counter- revolutionary, this forced us into a dissident situation.
‘‘ But we were more dissident to ourselves than to any political entity.’’
They were denied access to the China Art Gallery with its uniform socialist- realist style. They hung their works on the railings of the gardens outside. The police closed this informal exhibition down. Then on National Day, October 1, they marched through Tiananmen Square to Beijing’s Communist Party headquarters under the banner: ‘‘ We demand democracy and artistic freedom.’’
The Stars were later given space at a gallery by a brave director. But official criticism was harsh and unrelenting and in 1983 they agreed to disband, most dispersing to chase their dreams beyond the People’s Republic.
Ai went to the US. He arrived in Philadelphia, then lived for a decade in New York, where initially he attended the Parsons School for Design. As a member of the ‘‘ lost generation’’ who entered their teens during the Cultural Revolution, Ai, 50, never had a formal education in China.
He didn’t have much contact with US artists during his dozen years there. He went to galleries and worked for his living: house cleaning, babysitting, carpentry, framing and printing, ‘‘ but I never had a steady job’’.
When his father became ill, he returned to Beijing. ‘‘ I was disappointed in China. People had told me it was changing so much. To me, it wasn’t. Just some surface change. The system was still there.’’
He couldn’t work through galleries because they were circumscribed, so he published an underground book to promote contemporary culture: ‘‘ It had some impact,’’ he says. A show he organised in Shanghai, called F . . k Off, with the work of 50 young artists, was closed down immediately by police. An abandoned printing factory became a clandestine gallery: ‘‘ So I called it a warehouse, and nobody bothered us.’’
In 1999 he gained access to a piece of land in the Caochangdi district of Beijing. He drew plans for a group of buildings in one afternoon and completed them in 60 days using local labour. It was soon lauded as ‘‘ the new Chinese architecture’’, something Ai dismisses: ‘‘ I never had a second to think about architecture.’’
About 40 people now live in this artists’ village, not far from the Dashanzi zone where galleries and cafes are mushrooming inside the Bauhausstyle buildings of the sprawling former site of military factory 798.
Why the explosion of interest in contemporary Chinese art, the millions of dollars being paid for works? Ai views the phenomenon in the context of China’s long cultural history: ‘‘ China has always valued art, it has a strong tradition,’’ he says. ‘‘ Art has always been associated with good living, and understanding, and scholarship, and passing imperial tests. We have deployed the most profound art skills and aesthetic practice.
‘‘ But this was halted for 50 years’’: the Mao years. ‘‘ China is just starting to regain its old culture. And any country’s art includes the good and the less good, the more meaningful and the less so, the more and the less commercial.’’
Art, he says, has suffered from neglect and now from the new bureaucrats and the new rich, ‘‘ and the ruthless behaviour of the new developers’’. Beijing ‘‘ is not a city designed by rationality, or even by goodwill. The so- called elite are just the people who got rich first . . .
‘‘ Everything is based on profit. For the 30 years of opening up the economy, all the property of the nation has been shifting into a few hands.
‘ China has always valued art, it has a strong tradition’
There’s very little left after this state capitalism, this mafia, has grabbed it.
‘‘ The biggest of these crimes constitutional and anti- communist. And no one talks about it.’’
His mobile phone proves too insistent to ignore. Ai nods dutifully, and nods again. It’s his mother, telling him: ‘‘ Look after your health. And don’t get into any more trouble by talking to foreign journalists.’’
He sighs and continues, more in sorrow than anger. The $ 200 billion makeover of Beijing, he says, has included almost no contemporary art.
The Olympic Games are ‘‘ a propaganda show, a giant masked ball. The impact of the Games has been extreme. They’ll take any excuse to develop the city. Everyone has used the Olympics as an opportunity to do whatever they can, to push their plans through.’’
He cites as an example a new rule that residents of thousands of street- front buildings in Beijing must invest in mock- heritage curved roofs. In the process, he says, they will displace much that is genuinely historic. ‘‘ Some officials are antiIt’s crazy. think anything old is disgraceful, it’s bad. But many party members are also old. And they have total power, they can spend money like emperors.’’
Ai found himself grappling with that power after entering, in conjunction with Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, a competition to design the Olympic stadium. They won, and created the extraordinary curved steel structure now universally dubbed the bird’s nest.
‘‘ From the start,’’ Ai says, ‘‘ we talked about what the building might mean for the city before and after the Games. We created not just a building but a park around it, where people can do tai chi and sing songs. To us it was both a playground and a meaningful space.
‘‘ I’ve been to the site twice and I’m very happy about the result. It shows great craftsmanship and unity of design. I’m very proud of the building.’’
Ai’s work has been shown in Australia twice before. At the 2006 Biennale of Sydney he presented a world map made of 2000 layers of cloth, with countries cut out. At the Asia- Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2006 he displayed a chandelier in the shape of a boomerang, made of 300,000 pieces of crystal.
He is about to return for two exhibitions in Sydney: a retrospective at the Campbelltown Arts Centre and a new installation at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington.
The Campbelltown show is billed as the first international survey of Ai’s work, including sculpture, video and installation. It includes the specially commissioned Marble Chair : a Song Dynasty- style chair carved from a solid piece of stone, rather than wood.
‘‘ Ai Weiwei, more than any artist I know, takes the highly conceptual to a deeply human level,’’ curator Charles Merewether says.
The installation in Paddington is constructed from beams and pillars from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. From its origins in Ai’s Beijing studio, it has been assembled, disassembled and reassembled ‘‘ in some kind of secret order, so it can’t be clearly described’’, Ai says. ‘‘ You have to see it to understand.’’
It took Ai almost a year to create, working with 10 carpenters, who used no nails. It’s spread across 200sq m, and viewers can walk around as well as through it. That’s its name: Through .
‘‘ So it’s abstract,’’ he says. ‘‘ But of course there are also references to China, because all the wood I’ve used comes from temples destroyed in the name of development. It’s ancient, hard wood, that I have bought from antique dealers who were going to use it to make copies of antique furniture.’’ Fakes.
Ai Weiwei: Under Construction is at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown, Sydney, May 2- June 29. Through is at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Paddington, Sydney, May 1- July 26.
Conceptual cachet: From far left, the Beijing Olympic stadium; Marble Chair ( 2008); Hanging Man ( 1985); and Coca- Cola, Vase from the Neolithic Age ( 2006) by Ai Weiwei, right