Two photographs of Ai Wei-wei against a beige backdrop, side-by-side
Two photographs of Ai Wei-wei against a beige backdrop, side-by-side

“There is no possibility for my book to be read in China,” says Ai Weiwei. “Of course, online, daily, there are friends trying to put a little note out [to say] the book is published. And normally after two minutes or three minutes it is deleted. And they’ll have a warning to say your account will be frozen for next week." Chinese people, he says, "are very careful with language." 

The 64-year-old globally famous artist and political activist is sitting in the peaceful surrounds of the Heong Gallery in Cambridge talking about his memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. In person he is unhurried, warm and polite, introducing me to those around him while offering tea. 

The title of his book comes from lines that his father, the celebrated Chinese poet Ai Qing, wrote after visiting the ruins of an ancient Silk Road city. “Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows/ Not a trace can be found”, they read, “You who are living, live the best life you can/ Don’t count on the earth to preserve memory”. 

Memory is key to this remarkable work. In April 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained without charge by the Chinese state. It was less than three years after the “Bird’s Nest” stadium he had helped design for the Beijing Olympics had drawn gasps around the world. His vast “Sunflower Seeds” installation at Tate Modern – in which Ai carpeted the gallery’s Turbine Hall with millions of ceramic sunflower seeds hand-crafted in Jianxi province – was still showing in London, where it had been hailed as “a masterpiece” in the British press. But at home, he had angered the Chinese government with his project to collect and remember the names of all the children who had died in shoddily constructed school buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

His detention would last for three months, with every moment rigidly controlled. Guards would accompany him to the toilet; he had to ask permission to flush. He had exactly eight minutes for breakfast. Interrogation took place every morning and afternoon. He had to lie down to sleep at 9.45pm, and if early, he had to stand naked by his bed and wait. 

All of this is recorded in 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, and the idea to write it first took root during that time. Ai realised that the only space available to him was his mind. Watched by the guards day and night, cut off from communication with the outside world, “You’re starting to think: what belongs to me is my memory, and maybe the memories will keep me for years, because there’s no more information anymore.”

Those memories included the years when he was trying to establish himself as an artist in New York in the 1980s – having been among the first generation from China to study abroad – and the period between the ages of 10 and 15 spent with his father in a labour camp on the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert in northwest China. Ai Qing had been sent to “Little Siberia” during the Cultural Revolution to “correct” his “rightist” thinking – in fact, he was a left-wing intellectual, who had been aligned with the revolutionary effort ever since he moved to the Communist stronghold of Yan’an in Shaanxi province in 1941, yet he believed poets should have creative freedom, not simply write to serve the Party. In Little Siberia, Qing was assigned to clean the camp latrines, which in the winter formed frozen towers of faeces that had to be chipped away piece by piece. 

A head-and-shoulders portrait of Ai Weiwei against a beige background
A head-and-shoulders portrait of Ai Weiwei against a beige background

The ageing poet and two of his sons, Weiwei and his stepbrother Gao Jian, were forced to live in a “square hole dug into the ground”, with a roof of branches covered with mud. The bed they shared was a platform of earth covered with stalks of wheat. Ai Weiwei can still close his eyes and see it. “It’s a very fresh memory. But I don’t feel bad,” he says, showing me the entrance to such a dwelling on the lockscreen of his phone. “They are very special conditions. First, you feel safe… And then it is very warm in winter because it is under the earth. Hopefully there’s no rain, because then you get flooded,” he adds, “but it’s OK.” 

After 10 days in detention searching his memory for every detail, he tells me, he realised, “my relationship with my father is pretty fragile. There’s not much, even though we spend so much time together. And I just really regret I never directly asked him his feeling or his emotion or any questions. I start to think, his one eye is blind for the last 30 years, but I never even tried to think, what is it like? And I’m certain he would have very honestly answered my questions. He was that kind of person. So I started blaming myself.”

His own son, Ai Lao, was two years old at the time. Weiwei promised himself that “if there’s any chance I would get out”, which was not certain, he was determined to leave an account of his life for Ai Lao. “I know when he grows up, it’s a different world, he may not care. But to leave that record is my responsibility.”

 

The first 150 pages of Ai’s book tell his father's story, beginning Ai Qing’s birth in 1910, which allows Ai also to tell the story of China in the 20th century. The book revisits the civil war that ultimately led to Mao Zedong – whom his father knew personally – seizing power from the nationalist Kuomintang in 1949. It describes the years under Maoism, the Cultural Revolution and its impact. “That impact is not just on me and my father,” Ai stresses, “but the whole Chinese people; everyone, poor or rich, intellectual or not educated, has been through this horrible, historical moment.” 

The second half of the book describes Ai Weiwei’s own journey. After his father was freed, Ai felt an intense aversion to putting himself “back in a situation where I would be under someone else’s thumb”. Unemployed, he began to find an outlet in art, although his work was considered “so oddball as to fall outside any kind of assessment rubric” by the Central Academy of Fine Arts. For a period, he studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy.

Applying to study in America, he writes, was tantamount to defection in the eyes of some, and the process involved “training in keeping secrets”, yet he was desperate to get out of Beijing. During his time in New York, he absorbed many ideas about western conceptual art, but when he returned to China in 1993, he tells me, “I have to restart my life. And it takes me years. My mom is tired of looking at this boy who doesn’t do anything, just play cards with my brother, or buy antiques, do nothing, you know. But for me, I enjoyed that very casual time.” It wasn’t until his father passed away in 1996, he says, that “I feel I can do something.”

A blurred head-and-shoulders portrait of Ai Weiwei against a beige background
A blurred head-and-shoulders portrait of Ai Weiwei against a beige background

By 2015, he had finished a first draft of the memoir, which ran to a colossal 800,000 words, and the editing process started. The published work runs to a little under 400 pages, and in places, it is starkly poetic. Ai tells of how he came to sympathise with his guards in detention, soldiers in their twenties, seldom allowed to take even a step outside. “Like fish deposited in a bowl, they had no control over their fate,” he writes.

“I'm the son of a poet,” he says, explaining that he read a lot of poetry when he was very young. “I still value poetry as the highest form of human intellect. China also has a strong culture in terms of poetry. In poetry, personal sensitivity can always be talked about, and at the same time a larger perspective about the universe, so Chinese have this unique culture because they don’t have religion.”

I wonder if the book was influenced by other writers. Not directly, he says, but he has long had a love of Mark Twain, later of Franz Kafka, and more recently, the Japanese author Yusanari Kawabata – “the writing is so plain, it’s a little like water flowing.” 

I ask him if he has turned the concept of the artist as “art worker”, whose role is to be a “cultural soldier” for Communism, back on those in power in both East and West  (in works such as 2017’s “Law of the Journey”, for example, which implicitly criticises the response of Europe’s governments to the refugee crisis), because of the way he meshes his political beliefs with art? “I think being an individual is a very political position,” he says.

What does he make of the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor’s belief that mixing politics with art makes for “less good art”.  There is a sudden flash of steel in his eyes that reminds me this is a man who stood up to a state that governments around the world are afraid to. Does he strongly disagree? “I strongly agree I’m making less good art. Let him do the good art, because that so-called good art is questionable. Because, you know, someone wants to be a puppy, so it can be praised as good art? We say dog loves dog, pig loves pig; the pig will never love dogs, the dog will never love pigs. So we belong to two different classes, with not the same standard of good art or bad art. 

“Chairman Mao said something very interesting,” he adds: “In the class society, every person’s judgment really only reflects his class level, and no thinking can escape that, because whatever our judgment is really reflects which position we’re in. I'm in the position to make ‘not good art’.”

It’s fascinating to hear Ai, who spent his formative years in an indoctrination camp, quote Mao. Yet he knows well his own capacity to stir up trouble. “My father used to tell me, ‘the sickness comes from what you are eating, but the real disaster is what comes out of your mouth,’” he laughs. “Every Chinese knows those classic words, ‘if you talk too much there will be a lot of problems’ and I’m the one who talks the most in the art world.” 

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

 

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