BEIJING — Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous living artist, lives and works in Caochangdi, which used to be a village to the east of Beijing but is now, thanks to the city’s endless creep — locals call it Beijing Tan Da Bing, or spreading pancake — just another crowded suburb. It takes a long time to get anywhere in Beijing, and in our taxi, April, my translator, is getting more and more excited. “He’s like the king,” she says (she has met him before). “And we will be like . . . the servants. The people who work for him, they’re like his servants, too. If he doesn’t want a drink, no one gets one.” She smiles. Being received by Ai, you understand, is an honor, no matter how gnomic his pronouncements, nor how desperate you might be for a cup of tea.
In the West, Ai’s name was once known only in art circles. After his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on Beijing’s Olympic stadium — it was his idea to make it look like a bird’s nest — his fame spread, especially when he gave an interview in which he announced that he had “no interest” in the Olympics or in the Chinese state’s propaganda — and that, no, he would not be attending the opening ceremony.
Even so, it remains hard to convey the extent of his fame in China. The New York Times has described Ai as a “figure of Warholian celebrity” in Beijing, but I’m not sure even this does him justice. Warhol did a few screen prints and hung out in a night club with other famous people, in a country where he was free to do pretty much as he liked. Ai is not only an artist but also an influential architect, a publisher, a restaurateur, a patron and mentor, and an obsessive blogger (he is read by 10,000 people every day).
And then, on top of everything else, there are his politics. Ai’s father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labor camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. But if the authorities imagined he would now retire quietly to his studio, they were wrong. In the years since, he has been outspoken about issues like democracy, hoping that his international reputation as an artist would keep him safe but, even if his status doesn’t protect him, caring for silence and complicity far too little to shut up.
Thanks to April, then, and to my reading — Ai can, I have learned, be monosyllabic in interviews — I’m in a state of anxiety by the time we reach the gate of his studio complex. An assistant — he seems to have dozens — leads us into a courtyard, where we sit and wait. Soon after, with no fuss, he appears: short, round, pink of face, unreadable. There is some polite hand shaking, then he takes me inside, into the studio, where we survey, silently, work in progress.
Given his fondness for working with found objects what this means is a collection of stuff: chairs, tiles, bookcases, urns. Ai says nothing but he sighs a lot and rubs his face. Then we go back into the main house, where a willowy woman in a white dress descends from a floor above: his wife, the artist Lu Qing. I am introduced. We go back into the courtyard, where we sit at a table in the liverish Beijing sun. Green tea arrives, and I start to feel better. But it is only when we begin to talk, and it occurs to me that Ai is using English, that I realize that this is going to be all right. When he speaks English, it’s a good sign: he thinks you are OK.
He teases me a little about the possibility that I have come to ask him, yet again, about the stadium. “You’ll get me into trouble,” he says. His comments have, he thinks, been widely misunderstood. “People say: this guy who designed the stadium, now he hates it. But it’s not true. The product we designed is a perfect one: great for the city, great for the future of the city. People love it. The construction is quite fine, considering it is such a large, difficult work, and we put it up on time. But I had my [political] position long before the Olympics. That’s just 20 days. They come, they go. It’s what the stadium brings up that I care about: It reflects a lot of . . . problems.”
In fact, he doesn’t give two hoots about the stadium now that it’s done. “To me, it’s already the past.” This is a characteristic Ai position. While most artists and many architects seek to thicken the mystery that surrounds their work, he is apt to shrug, as if anyone could do it.
It was Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to Beijing and owner of the world’s most complete collection of Chinese art, who introduced Ai to Herzog & de Meuron, but ask him for specifics about his role, and all he will say is: “They gave me a title like . . . expert consultant. We came up with the concept during our very first meeting. It was a very intensive brainstorm-type process.”