BEIJING — Ai Weiwei — the Chinese artist and activist — is wearing his favorite T-shirt. Stretched over his ample belly is a photograph of himself. Above the image are the words “Missing” and “Found.”
The T-shirt is typical Ai: audacious, funny and dark. It refers to his 81-day detention last year, when the Chinese authorities made him “disappear.” Today, Ai, 55, seems relaxed and at ease. He sits at one end of a vast wooden table in the sparse, industrial-looking dining room of the home where he lives with his wife in Beijing’s Caochangdi art district. Sunshine pours through the windows.
“It was very brutal, very inhuman,” remembers Ai, speaking with charismatic flourish in fluent English last week. As he talks, a fluffy white cat, one of the 40 or so living in his home and adjoining studio, pitter-patters over the table. “They never explained why I had to be there. They never formally announced to my family where I am. I could not talk to a lawyer. Two military police were standing in front of me 24 hours a day,” he holds up his hands a few inches from his face to demonstrate, “even during sleep or a shower.” He pauses. “It’s too much to talk about.”
Ai may be a bit weary of recounting his detention, but in the coming months, Americans will be hearing more about his story and seeing more of his work. On Friday, a new documentary about his life and art called “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” directed by first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman, an American, will reach L.A. theaters.
In October, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington will host Ai’s first major exhibition in the United States, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” Scheduled to run until February 2013, the exhibition — parts of which were previously seen at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009 — will encompass nearly 40 pieces ranging from the 1980s to the present day. Around half will be new works. (Ai’s separate traveling installation “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.)
Central to “Never Sorry,” which won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize in January, is Ai’s battle with the authorities following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai investigated the shoddily built schools that collapsed, killing thousands of students. “Never Sorry” begins at this life-changing juncture for the artist and ends with a firmly slammed door after his detention two years later.
The documentary superbly captures the arbitrary, all-pervasive power of authoritarian China. Footage that Ai recorded himself (and which is replayed in “Never Sorry”) shows that Ai had been badly beaten in a Sichuan hotel room. The attack led to a brain hemorrhage. Absurdly, when he attempts to protest, police scornfully tell him that he must have assaulted himself.
The intimidation, though, did not work. Ai and 50 volunteers collected more than 5,000 names of students who died in the earthquake to post online on the one-year-anniversary of the temblor. “This act really made the [Communist] Party nervous. That is the first large-scale, in the very open sense, media-concentrated civil act in China,” Ai says.
Such brazen activism has contributed to Ai’s spectacular fall from grace in the eyes of Chinese officials. Ai acted as artistic consultant for the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium built for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing; now, he calls those Olympics pure “propaganda” and he has become perhaps the most outspoken critic of the government living in the mainland.
Ai frequently mocks the authorities through his art. One of the best-known examples was a provocative self-portrait in which he was photographed naked, suspended in the air, clutching a stuffed “grass mud horse” toy (similar to a llama) over his groin. The title of the piece is “Grass Mud Horse Covering the Middle” — which sounds almost identical in Chinese to “[Expletive] Your Mother, the Communist Party Central Committee.”
ArtReview magazine named him the most powerful man in art in 2011 “as a result of his activism as much as his art practice.” Asked if art and politics are integral to each other, he answers: “I think they’re always together. I think who makes art is making a statement — and any statement must have a moral judgment.”
But such works, not surprisingly, have not sat well with Chinese officials. After his release from detention, Ai was formally charged with tax evasion and authorities fined him 15 million yuan (about $2.4 million). Colleagues have been implicated in the tax case (two assistants who were also detained remain missing, according to Ai). Last week, he lost an appeal against the tax fine.
“The tax case is pure fabrication,” says Ai, who was barred from court during his appeal. “When they put me in detention they tell me, ‘We have to punch you because you did such and such.’ They say, ‘You try to smash us [by giving interviews to foreign media]. So we want to tell the people you are a liar, you are not trustworthy.’ I laughed. I said: ‘Do you believe the people who were born in the ’80s or ’90s will believe you?'”
Ai’s comment speaks to his popularity among China’sInternet-savvy youth, many of whom find ways to circumvent the government’s online censorship and who distrust the state-run media. Although his name is blocked on the popular Chinese micro-blog Weibo, Ai is active on Twitter (his handle is @aiww, though the service is banned in China).
Supporters have shown solidarity through donations, some flown over his studio walls in paper airplanes. In total they added up to 9 million yuan, or about $1.4 million. He calls it a “fairy tale.” But now authorities have announced they are also investigating Ai for bigamy and pornography. “[I am like] a disease or some kind of threatening virus,” says Ai, who had a child with a woman other than his wife, something he talks about openly in the documentary.
“Never Sorry,” unsurprisingly, will not be distributed in China. Klayman, who did not get permission from the Beijing Film Bureau to make the movie, says salvation will come via the Internet. “The best we can expect is that someone will put it online, in the same way that Ai Weiwei puts stuff online…. It seems like the only way,” she explains. She adds that she would welcome pirated DVDs to spread the message. “That would be amazing.”
With Ai on a one-year probation period (his passport has been confiscated), he’s missing a key London show that coincides with the Summer Olympics.
Ai reunited with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (his collaborators for the Bird’s Nest) to design the 12th temporary pavilion for London’s Serpentine Gallery, which will be on display during the Summer Games. Because of his travel ban, he submitted designs from his studio in China and has never seen the finished product.
The piece is a reminder of the four years that have passed since the Beijing Olympics, when Ai first expressed vocal criticism of the government (in a famous photograph that went viral, he holds up a middle finger to the Bird’s Nest). Asked what he saw as the legacy of the Beijing Games, he scoffs.
“Legacy?” he asks. “What is left for China? China concentrated on medals. The Olympics never produced real happiness. On the surface, everything is polished: fake smile, baked. But this is a completely rotten city — corrupt, incapable.
“What does [gold medals] have to do with people’s life quality and civil society and freedom of speech?” he continues heatedly. “It’s become a tighter, more nervous, more restricted, more watched [country]. The phones are tapped, the email accounts are being checked — it’s become a police state.”
Ai will also likely miss the Hirshhorn show. Among the pieces slated for that exhibit is “Rebar,” a major new work that will be shown for the first time.
The piece returns to where it all began: Sichuan. Ai has spent the last two years collecting more than 200 tons of metal from the debris of the crumpled schools. The twisted, dirty rods have been straightened out to form perfect lines of metal. The message is clear: In China, traumatic history is hidden under sparkling surfaces. “It looks like new material has come from the factory. Perfect lines in an order as if nothing had happened,” he explains.
Asked if he ever just hopes for a “normal life,” Ai replies that he’s “a very normal person.” He gestures toward a cook preparing lunch in his kitchen and a couple of tan cats lounging lazily on the stairs. “I enjoy anything…. We have cats, all those dogs, I read the news. I don’t care about popularity or heroic acts.”
Then he becomes serious. “My act is not heroic, my act is very basic human dignity,” he says. “I see a lot of support, which I really think is so important for humanity and for the dignity of life. We are all associated.”
Times staff writer David Ng in Los Angeles contributed to this report
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore