Ai Weiwei's memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, gives voice to artistic mission

Ai Weiwei. Picture: Ai Weiwei Studio
Ai Weiwei. Picture: Ai Weiwei Studio

In a 2015 exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, "Go East", an enormous polished wood box of a traditional Chinese style displayed the thousands of pages of printout that made up Ai Weiwei's blog. The blog had been closed down by the Chinese authorities.

Nearby, a green overcoat of the kind worn by Chinese troops, distributed by Ai Weiwei to homeless people in Beijing, was signed and framed.

Australian audiences appreciated the "ready-made" intent of these art works, but it is only in reading this memoir that Ai Weiwei's singular mission, as an artist in a time and place of political repression, becomes three-dimensional.

Ai Weiwei's father Ai Qing was a famous poet around the time of the Chinese revolution, a confidante of Mao's and instrumental in the design of the Chinese flag. But he became inevitably a victim of the Cultural Revolution and was exiled, sentenced to years of hard labour in the Chinese equivalent of Siberia. These were some of the years of Ai Weiwei's childhood, living in a dugout with his father who was assigned to clean the public latrines.

As a young man, Ai Weiwei went to New York, where his heroes became Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Returning to Beijing, he emerged as an artist-activitist and eventual enemy of the Chinese state. Celebrated internationally as one of China's leading contemporary artists - a latter day Dadaist and 'action' artist - the works he made were increasingly political, using documentary and protest events focused around the internet. His account of the development of that style is the most interesting part of this book.

Following a period of detention without charge, he realised what his own father must have gone through in the Cultural Revolution. The memoir is written for his own son Ai Lao, with the purpose of telling him the history of his own and his father's lives. It blends narratives of notoriety, the prestige he enjoyed because of his father's position as a leading poet of the modern era alongside the persecution of freedom of expression that they both suffered in the authoritarian state.

Ai Weiwei's art comprises valiant attempts to assert the significance of freedom of expression in ways that do not immediately attract the repression of the state. In the early days of the internet, he discovered that social activism as art event came naturally to him. His blog had a tremendous following before the authorities, in time, were taking stuff down as quickly as he was putting it up. Eventually, his account was closed and his name erased from searches on the Chinese internet. He had to resort to a VPN in order to post on Twitter, and later Instagram (which remain outside the Great Firewall of China).

His political resistance as a kind of art captured imaginations worldwide. He was already famous across the Western art world when he was taken into detention, and this may have saved him - there was significant international protest about his being held.

On his release, he took steps to secure the safety of his partner and son, establishing a studio in Berlin and sending them on ahead. He himself had to wait four years for his passport to be restored. He went into exile in 2015 and now lives in Europe.

Ai Weiwei's work finds a brilliant direct everyday idiom for the expression of outrage while evading political statements that show outright sedition. For example, he affixed thousands of schoolkids' backpacks to the facade of the Munich Haus der Kunst in 2009 to represent the children that had died in the earthquakes of 2008 in Sichuan because of shoddy and corrupt building practices in the People's Republic.

His cultivated knowledge of the traditional crafts of China, undervalued since the time of the revolution and shunned as a bourgeois legacy, lead him to use traditional methods and materials in salutary ways. He collected Han, Ming and Qing period artefacts at the Beijing antique markets with his brother Air Dan, a novelist - it gave rise to at least two notable works: the 1995 "Dropping a Han Dynasty urn", and the hundred million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds made to fill the turbine hall of the Tate Modern exhibition of 2010. Through this living history of objects, Ai Weiwei keeps a side of China alive in an ironic style that exceeds the modern political era.

Since his exile, Ai Weiwei has made art that generalises the message about human rights and the stateless, such as "Law of the Journey", which features a 70-metre inflatable boat of the kind used by Syrian refugees to reach Europe (seen at the 2018 Sydney Biennale).

This memoir gives volume to his continuing artistic mission, to live with the contradiction of the power of the celebrity artist versus the pain of the exiled dissident - the two poles along which his art career has necessarily taken shape.

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This story An artistic mission still in flight first appeared on The Canberra Times.