What is daily life like for China’s most famous dissident artist? Since his nearly three-month detention last spring, Ai Weiwei has been heroized in the West—receiving, in absentia, the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Award for Courage and topping ArtReview magazine’s Power 100 list of influential art-world figures. But in the People’s Republic, he remains curatorially untouchable, legally restricted to Beijing and embroiled in a $2.4 million “tax evasion” dispute. Below, the author takes us inside Ai’s beleaguered—but characteristically informal—family compound to chat (in Mandarin, later translated to English) with the man at the center of this global controversy.
It was a cold rainy September day when I landed in Beijing, and for the entire week the city was enveloped in thick mist. The top of any building over 20 floors high disappeared into the “fog”—actually, as every Beijing resident knows, a chemical haze mixed with dust.1 Like many visitors in recent years, I suffered a persistent sore throat and cough. Yet miraculously, when I went to visit Ai Weiwei, the wind blew away the smog, and the autumn day turned crisp and balmy. I actually saw the sky, I mean the blue sky, for the first time.
I had met Weiwei previously both in China and the U.S., but this was the first time I visited his home in the Caochangdi art district. The street was quite empty; there were no cars or pedestrians outside his compound. Several people warned me against visiting Weiwei now, and my friend would not let me use his cell phone to call for an appointment. But since I am neither a journalist nor a political activist but simply an art lover who wanted to talk with him, I went anyway—unannounced. I was a bit nervous while ringing the bell near the Fake design studio sign.2 A middle-aged man opened the now famous blue door. “Is Weiwei in?” I asked. He nodded and walked back into the first bungalow on the right, leaving me on my own.
It was very quiet inside. Across the courtyard, enclosed by a high brick wall, was Weiwei’s studio house—the stark live/work space he designed himself. While some call its architectural style minimalist, he calls it “essential.” Many structures in the area echo his gray brick walls and matchbox studio forms. His courtyard does not have the perfectly groomed lawn and manicured garden one finds in the West, nor even the carefully arranged rocks, groves and ponds of a traditional Chinese quadrangle. Instead, it is natural, spacious and homey. Among the many plants was a dense stand of bamboo that I thought grew only in the south.
In a corner of the lawn, under shade, sat a round garden table, a bowl of fresh jujubes and a few empty chairs. A little dog rolled about on the ground happily; four or five cats, of various colors and shapes, lay in the sunshine on the doorstep and on top of a big rock.
The door was open. I saw a very long and sturdy wooden dining table and a dozen or so antique chairs lined against the brick wall. The house is built like a loft with very high ceilings in the living room area and a full
second-floor bedroom above the kitchen.
“Is anybody in?” I called a few times. Getting no response, I wandered back across the courtyard to a room where a few people were having lunch around a huge table. “Have you eaten yet?” Weiwei’s wife, Lu Qing, asked.3 I shook my head, and she went to get me some rice. On the table were a bowl of shredded dry tofu, a plate of sautéed vegetables and a dish of fried shrimp with ginger and scallions. Nobody asked who I was or why I had come. Evidently, anyone who manages to visit Weiwei is treated as a guest and invited to eat at mealtime.
Weiwei ambled in. According to reports, he lost almost 30 pounds during his three-month detention last spring. Now he seemed to have gained half the weight back. He looked stronger and more energetic than he did in pictures and TV clips at the time of his release. After his brief lunch, he had to go out of the compound to attend to business. I went to sit at the garden table, nibbling sweet jujubes and looking at the persimmon trees on the other side of the lawn. The worker who was removing animal droppings told me that the persimmons would be ripe in one or two weeks, but nobody would pick them. The ripe fruit would eventually drop on the grass.
Later, my curiosity aroused by the loud snorting of a dog, I went back inside. The harmless creature, sleeping noisily in a padded vest, had the air of an aging man who has experienced many vicissitudes. The cleaning lady who was mopping the floor said that if Weiwei went out in the afternoon he usually didn’t return until late at night. However, he got up around 7:30 a.m. I was surprised. Most artists in China are night owls and always wake up around noon.
The next day, when I arrived at Weiwei’s home at 8:45 a.m., his associates were already in front of their computers working. Weiwei was busy dealing with paperwork, phone calls and quick meetings. He took a short break and talked to me in the dining room.