A Provocateur Finds out Just How Far He Can Go

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Artist Ai Weiwei pushed boundaries with his art. Now the chinese government is pushing back.

A few years ago, when the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was invited to show at the German festival called Documenta--it's the art world's most prestigious event--his "piece" consisted of the most generous of gestures: he arranged for a visit from 1,001 of his compatriots, who might not otherwise have traveled. (Many of his "guests" hadn't had passports; a few were lacking last names.) So it's poignant and ironic that on April 3, on his own way out of his homeland, the 53-year-old artist was detained by the authorities. Days later they announced that Ai was a suspect in unspecified "economic crimes"--code for "we hate you, and we're taking you down." They also published an editorial that accused Ai of being a "maverick of Chinese society" who likes "surprising speech" and "surprising behavior."

There's a sad history of "surprising" artists following their muse to disaster. In the 1950s, the great abstractionist Morris Louis used new toxic paints to make a new kind of art, and died before fame hit; Boris Pasternak got the Italians to publish Doctor Zhivago, won the Nobel Prize for it--and was promptly stomped on by the Soviet regime.

You could say that, in getting arrested, Ai also took a hit from his muse: as his work has gotten better and better, more and more original, it has also become more directly political, and more clearly in the face of the people who could hurt him. You could even say that his arrest is also his masterpiece: it shows that, by going full-bore into politics, he has at last made art that risks changing the world. It has put him at risk, too.

In 2009, after working to uncover truths about the tragic earthquake in Sichuan, he was beaten by the local cops and could have died from a clot on his brain. In 2010 he posted several political tweets; one of his studios soon got bulldozed. And now he's in jail, no one knows for how long.

Ai's friend, the author and musician Wu Hongfei, says he told her of a dream he had three days before being detained: "He saw a lot of people in this village, where everyone was crippled. Some people had no heads, and some people had no arms, and he wanted to get out of this village, but he couldn't. See, he knew he was going to be arrested."

Ai is due--or had been due, as things now stand--to unveil a piece of public art near New York's Central Park in May, and that might have pushed officials to act. They didn't need their most famous and least biddable artist getting any more recognition abroad, and becoming any more untouchable.

To us, Ai's piece should look safe, almost goofy: a bunch of Chinese zodiac animals in bronze, like charms off a giant's bracelet. For the Chinese, it's all about picking at a scab: Ai's animal heads are a riff on figures made in China in the 18th century, then stolen by European forces in 1860. The Chinese have been on a quest to get all of them back (a few are still lodged in Western collections), so for Ai to send more of them abroad must read as some kind of nose thumbing. Or perhaps it's the nose thumbing that is the real art in this case, as in all of Ai's most recent and most important work. (Ai is also poking at America, I think, by inviting us to smile at dumb tchotchkes he's dumped on our streets, and betting that we won't see them as more than that.)

The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum had also been planning an Ai exhibition, a full retrospective in the summer of 2012. Chief curator Kerry Brougher says he had been expecting a visit from the artist: "I was always worried something would happen to him. And now it has."

Gao Wenqian, a former panegyrist for the Communist Party, fled after the horrors of Tiananmen Square and now works in New York. He says it's clear to him that behind the radical surface of Ai's artistic activism is "a love for the country. …