"Normally people feel powerless. That's how society becomes a society, if they think they have a little power and support and help to solve the problem."The Guardian:
The surveillance camera police have trained on the turquoise gate of Ai Weiwei's studio in north Beijing captures a steady stream of visitors; journalists, well-wishers, the art crowd. Five months after his release from an 81-day detention, and in the wake of a fortnight of extraordinary expressions of public support, Ai is anticipating other arrivals. "Every day I think, 'this will be the day I will be taken in again.'
"That's also the impression they [the authorities] try to create, not just to me but to the whole society; to anybody who has different opinions," he adds.
A few years ago the celebrated Chinese artist was a well-established figure in the international and domestic art worlds; provocative, certainly, but respectable enough to co-design the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and be covered by Chinese state media. Then his outspoken views and activism triggered clashes with authority, culminating in this year's detention – part of a broader crackdown on activists, lawyers and dissidents that saw dozens held and more harassed, threatened or placed under other restrictions. He has become, to many, the face of human rights in China: more a symbol than a person.
"The fact the government disappeared him, and then afterwards continued to go after him through various charges, sends a signal to other activists that even if you are well known it does not really protect you," says Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network. "On the other hand, the way he turned it around was very clever, and I think activists have been energized."
"It's never about me," says Ai, now 54. "[My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognize their own form of life: I become their medium. I am always very clear about that."
Ai emerged from his ordeal in June, far slimmer – having lost almost 10kg, some of which he has regained – and apparently chastened.
"My energy was very low after these 81 days and I really needed the time to recover, mentally and physically. I was quite fragile," he acknowledges. "I tried to do much less, because I also think this is not a game I can play. If they can make you disappear, why do you still play this game? Ridiculous.
"But even if you don't speak, they still put these false accusations on you … So then you feel, if you don't speak, you are part of this crime. I guess both sides are very disappointed." He laughs.
There are fewer flashes of the puckish humor these days and he is more cautious in his pronouncements, but he is nonetheless saying more than the government would like, and recent actions by his supporters speak still louder. When authorities handed him a £1.5m tax bill, thousands helped him pay the first tranche, some flinging money over the studio walls. When police mooted the possibility that he was guilty of pornography – in relation to photos picturing him and four women, all naked – they tweeted nude pictures of themselves.
"We are trying to work with a very limited space. To people who do not understand the conditions, it may look ridiculous. But to us, that's the only space," he says.
"Normally people feel powerless. That's how society becomes a society, if they think they have a little power and support and help to solve the problem."
The downside is not only the risk of authorities using the donations against him – by deeming it illegal fundraising – but the ever-increasing expectations of his supporters. He was "thrilled" to learn how much support he had received during his detention, but the pressure from both sides has become hard to bear.
"One side has so much hope they put on my shoulders. I cannot really help them. I can't even help me; my condition [situation] is quite bad," he observes.
Ai was reportedly interrogated more than 50 times during his detention, but about his views and activism rather than his financial dealings. He does not go into detail about what happened but points out that many of the others detained this spring were treated far worse. According to the accounts that have trickled out some were beaten; many were deprived of sleep, forced to sit in stress positions and threatened. Several still show clear symptoms of trauma, say friends.
"I think I recovered the most. About 100 people were taken in. Only a few have spoken out. Most of them [seem] to be silenced for ever – some you can see are completely crushed," Ai says.
"It's hard to recover. You become not so innocent. You become, in a way, more sophisticated, which I think you shouldn't. We should all have more simple happiness ... You become bitter."
And yet, he adds: "Maybe there is something I got from it. Maybe you also start to be clear on certain things."
The parallels with his father's case are inescapable. Ai Qing was a revered poet, which in part explains the relative protection his son has enjoyed, but endured years of persecution after being condemned as a rightist. "His whole heart loved art and literature. But he was crushed; he almost committed suicide several times," says Ai, who grew up in a labour camp.
"My voice is not for me. Every time I make a sentence I think how many people for how many generations had a voice that no one could hear. At most they will be remembered as numbers; in many cases, even numbers don't exist.
"I think I have this responsibility for my father's generation, and especially future generations."
Still, he insists, "I am not a dissident" – simply someone put on the spot by the government's actions.
Amid the political storm, it is easy to lose sight of Ai's artistic record. His work is on show in London, Berlin and Taipei; next year will see exhibitions in Sweden, France and the Netherlands. More remarkably, a gallery in Beijing is exhibiting some of his past work – including the list of names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. His attempts to tally the deaths of those who had died in shoddily constructed schools put him on a collision course with authorities.
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