Every morning, Ai Weiwei places a new bunch of flowers in the front basket of a bicycle outside his studio in Caochangdi, northeast Beijing. He plans to keep making these colourful little daily protests until the government returns his passport, which remains confiscated since the dissident artist was detained and psychologically tortured for 81 days in 2011.
The flowers, and the studio door behind them, are in the vision of a cluster of CCTV cameras that help the authorities keep tabs on Ai's every move. Not that Ai does much moving, having been told that he's not allowed to leave Beijing.
Born in 1957 to Ai Qing, a renowned poet, Ai Weiwei studied and worked in New York's bohemian subculture from 1981 until 1993, when he returned to China. Between 1994 and 1997 his reputation as a lynchpin of China's artistic underground grew as he helped publish three avant-garde art showcase books outside government-approved channels. He later shifted his focus towards architecture and was invited to help design Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics, which he ended up dismissing as a "propaganda" event, before distancing himself from the whole thing.
He used blogs to publicly slam the Chinese government, but it was his reaction to the collapse of poorly constructed government-built schools in Sichuan during an earthquake in 2008 that shot him to the top of the authorities' must-silence list.
The government was accused of trying to cover up corruption that led to the shoddy building standards and thousands of children's deaths. Ai mobilised a team of volunteers to collect over 5,000 names of those who died as part of the scandal, and made them public. During the process he accused a police officer of punching him in the head during an early-hours hotel raid.
After his newly-built Shanghai studio was demolished by authorities in 2010, in April of 2011 he was apprehended on woolly economic crime charges and driven to a secret Beijing location with his eyes covered. While a "Free Ai Weiwei" campaign rippled around the world, Ai was locked up for 81 days, accompanied by two guards who stayed within a few feet of him 24 hours a day. He depicted the ordeal in his chillingly stark work "S.A.C.R.E.D.".
Although Ai hasn't had any dramatic altercations with authorities since 2011, it was still a surprise to hear that his first ever solo exhibition in China got the go-ahead this year. "Ai Weiwei", a magnificently ambitious project, has seen him reconstruct a Ming-age temple across two adjacent galleries in Beijing's 798 Art Zone.
There doesn't seem to be anything overtly political about the show, and a June editorial in the Global Times newspaper, used by the government as a mouthpiece, declared that a "new start" could be on the cards for Ai with regards to his relationship with authorities.
"They said ["new start", meaning] not to give me too much pressure, or to not make me greater," says Ai in the studio meeting room we sit down to talk in, surrounded by his plump cats. "So I think they are smart. The nature of the authorities is unpredictable. But at this moment I think it's quite positive."
VICE: Why was it so long before you had your first China solo show?
Ai Weiwei: It's unbelievable – I'm 58. But I didn't want to have a show in a society that has very strong censorship.
I had so many shows outside China, I had freedom in my works [outside China], so it doesn't matter if I do a show here and [am] not able to say what I am gonna say [elsewhere].
How did you get approval from the authorities?
I didn't ask anybody if the show could happen or not. Authorities watched every step of the process, but never stepped in to say no. In China, when nobody says no, that means yes. But that doesn't mean that they mean it.
Were you surprised that the authorities were happy for it to take place?
I don't think they are happy. They made us move the exhibition start date from the 30th of May to the 6th of June, after the sensitive time [the 4th of June anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests]. It was not my intention to highlight any date, but the way they moved it became part of the show.
The Global Times wrote this about you: "Only a few in China are familiar with his work, which must be of regret to an artist." What's your reaction?
If that were true, they would not have published that article. They think I am too influential, of course, and I am too influential.
But are you truly influential throughout Chinese society? You're heavily censored and probably better known outside of China than you are inside.
[I'm influential among] college students, mostly. Each year, over 300,000 Chinese students study abroad; somehow they all know [about me], and their images are from Western media. The last time I was in the Tate Modern, in 2010, I wasn't famous. Now people tell me, "Oh, you are more like a rock star or a sports person."
Does that make you feel good?
No, it just makes me feel more responsibility. You feel you have to be careful – I was always so casual. So now they think I can cause damage. But, of course, they protect me with this great wall [technically being restricted to Beijing], plus The Great Firewall.
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Protect you? But they're containing you.
It's great protection for me. It gives me [strength] to be isolated in a castle – to design my own weapon – but not really in the global battleground. Basically, I am in Caochangdi; I don't even go to [the centre of] Beijing. Beijing is another city to me.
But you don't seem to have been designing a "weapon" – your solo show doesn't seem political in the slightest
It's an interesting point, because that [the media declaring that the show is not political] made a very strong political point. To say that a person marked as a political person is not being political, it's like if you went to a Sichuan restaurant to eat some food which is not spicy [Sichuan cuisine is known for being extremely spicy].
The Global Times also accused you of using your political labelling to make up for artistic weakness.
I don't know what kind of artistic measurement they are using, but I am happy that they recognise my political ability. They make a good point. All their criticism, all their attacks, I can fully accept. I don't think they can handle it, because they are afraid of true philosophical discussion.
Whether or not it's making up for artistic weakness, it's undoubtedly the case that the Chinese authorities' treatment of you has made you an international star and given you a platform far bigger than one you'd have otherwise.
Yeah, the government officials always tell me, "Weiwei, you are being treated like this not because you are a bad person, but because you are too influential." I said, "Yes, but think about how I became too influential. You helped make me more influential." Look at any hero story: the hero will not be the hero if there is no monster. You have to have a terrifying monster to make that little boy become a hero. Even the most innocent or weak person can be a hero.
What are the monitoring levels like now?
There are no people following me any more. There is no harsh 100 metres [behind me] following, or people in restaurants sat on the next table to me, or waiting in the park behind bushes taking photos. Of course, [they're still] monitoring my phone and my email – that's normal. Every digital signal is monitored. I welcome them to do that.
I told them: "I have no secrets; you have secrets." So I invite them to my office, my bedroom. I put a camera in my bedroom once to broadcast myself – it was right above my bed [for a 2012 project called "WeiweiCam"]. I forgot it was there. Then the police called me and said, "Weiwei, please shut it down." I asked if it was a discussion or an order. They said it was an order.
Last September you said: "My heart is in the most peaceful place it has been for a decade." Do you still feel that way?
Yes. If you see my show in 798, there's one foundation stone missing under the pillar. I replaced it with a crystal block. It's transparent. I put a piece of paper with a message there that my son wrote to me: "Xin ping er hao," meaning that if your heart is at peace, then the world will act accordingly. My son, only six years old, made up this sentence. I feel more peaceful than ever.
But the climate for artists in China is getting worse, with the government smashing down on dissent in the arts and trying to make artists promote Communist values. Why do you feel so peaceful in this climate?
The environment is much harsher and it's getting worse. But the general condition in China is much more free. The state of mind, people's hearts… they are much more liberal today than ever.
But it's a terrible time for freedom of speech and any kind of dissent.
The tightened control on lawyers and artists and activists only reflects how fragile the situation is. People may say, "How could you put somebody in jail for putting something on [messaging app] WeChat? How could you lock up somebody because they marked the 4th of June or supported Hong Kong [pro-democracy protests]?" As a chess player, or whatever, you always have to stand on the other player's point to see why he has to do it. If he doesn't do it, can he survive or not? The situation is much more difficult for the other player. It's a reaction to the situation. A lack of confidence.
What would happen if you left Beijing now?
I think that'd be fine, but of course they'd know about it. Every step, they know about it. I did go to Shanghai to see Metallica. I saw people [monitoring me] in the train station and hotel lobby. I walked towards them to see what they were doing, and said, "I don't know you."
You recently posted a picture of what you said was the secret jail you were detained in. What are your memories of that place?
When I was in and out of there I always [had my face] covered. That was considered the state's top secret, highly military-controlled location. Even the soldiers there don't know where they are. They travel there in a sealed vehicle, they serve three or four years inside, then move on. They never leave that compound.
You depicted the experience in "S.A.C.R.E.D.", showing two uniformed officers constantly staring at you. Were they violent?
The whole act was violence. The violence was not physical. I was not beaten. I wish I had been beaten.
Because you want some human touch. You want to feel pain, or something, but you don't want people to look at you as a foreign object and never blink their eyes. Just like this [Weiwei stares into my eyes until I blink]. I beat them at it, but they were very well trained. I couldn't sleep. I lay down and the soldiers stood and stared at me, so I was awake the whole night. It completely destroys your reasoning, communication and your sensitivity with anything you are familiar with. That's the most violent act you can have.
Did it break you down mentally?
I think so. I started to hear sounds that they said never happened. Strange music, loud and continuous 24 hours a day. They gave me a pill that they said was to calm me down, to fix my brain or something. I had to take it because they examined my mouth with a doctor standing next to them. Only in a movie could you have this. Or in nightmares.
Are you now tempted to steer clear of making political statements to maintain the relative peace?
The problem with me is that I don't have much sense of danger. I never thought they would do it [detain him], and I still don't believe they will do that to me again. But they can do it anytime to anybody.
I read that, after your release, they warned you that they could detain you again.
Yeah: "And next time I will never let you out." It scares me, but… I don't know. What am I gonna do? I told them that even if they pull me out now to put a bullet on me, I cannot change my beliefs. They can make me disappear, but I don't think I'm scared enough to change. That's not possible.
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