In 1981, when it became possible for Chinese citizens to travel abroad, Ai made his way to New York. His first glimpse of the city came on a plane in the early evening. “It looked like a bowl of diamonds,” he said. It was not the city’s material wealth that attracted him, however, but its dazzling freedom of action and speech. For a time Ai had an apartment near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where young Chinese artists and intellectuals often gathered. But he had no particular success as an artist. He worked odd jobs and spent his time going to exhibitions. The poet Allen Ginsberg, whom he befriended, told Ai that galleries would not take much notice of his work.
Although he has a special interest in Jasper Johns, Warhol and Dada, Ai is not easily categorized. He has a wandering mind that can embrace very different, sometimes contrary, elements. The same artist who loves the transcendental oneness of van Gogh, for example, also admires the abstruse and sometimes analytical sensibility of Johns. Much of Ai’s best-known work is rooted in conceptual and Dadaist art. He has often created “ready-mades”—objects taken from the world that an artist then alters or modifies—that have a strong satirical element. In one well-known example, he placed a Chinese figurine inside a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch. Yet in contrast to many conceptual artists, he also demonstrated, early on, a keen interest in a work’s visual qualities and sent himself to study at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York.
Ai’s interest in design and architecture led him, in 2006, to collaborate with HHF Architects on a country house in upstate New York for two young art collectors. The house is four equal-sized boxes covered on the outside in corrugated metal; the small spaces between the boxes permit light to suffuse the interior, where the geometry is also softened by wood and surprising angles. The award-winning design is both remarkably simple and—in its use of light and the grouping of interior spaces—richly complex.
But Ai’s interest in design and architecture has less to do with being a conventional architect than with rebuilding—and redesigning—China itself. Returning to China in 1993, when his father fell ill, he was discouraged by two new forms of oppression: fashion and cronyism. “Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to get rich,” he said, adding that those who succeeded did so through their affiliation with the Communist Party. “I could see so many luxury cars, but there was no justice or fairness in this society. Far from it.” New consumer goods such as tape recorders brought fresh voices and music into a moribund culture. But rather than struggle to create independent identities, Ai said, young people instead settled into a new, easy and fashion-driven conformity. “People listened to sentimental Taiwanese pop music. Levi’s blue jeans came in very early. People were seeking to be identified with a certain kind of style, which saves a lot of talking.”
Ai responded to the new China with scabrous satire, challenging its puritanical and conformist character by regularly showcasing a rude and boisterous individuality. He published a photograph of himself in which he is shown naked, leaping ludicrously into the air, while holding something over his genitals. The photo caption—“Grass mud horse covering the middle”—sounds in spoken Chinese like a coarse jest about mothers and the Central Committee. He formed a corporation called “Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.” He mocked the Olympic Games, which, in China, are now a kind of state religion. The CCTV tower in Beijing, designed by the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is regarded with great national pride; the Chinese were horrified when a fire swept through an annex and a nearby hotel during construction. Ai’s response? “I think if the CCTV building really burns down it would be the modern landmark of Beijing. It can represent a huge empire of ambition burning down.”
Ai’s resistance to all forms of control—capitalist and communist—manifests itself in one poignant way. He refuses to listen to music. He associates music with the propaganda of the old days and prefers the silent spaces of independent thought. “When I was growing up, we were forced to listen to only Communist music. I think that left a bad impression. I have many musician friends, but I never listen to music.” He blames the Chinese educational system for failing to generate any grand or open-ended sense of possibility either for individuals or the society as a whole. “Education should teach you to think, but they just want to control everyone’s mind.” What the regime is most afraid of, he says, is “free discussion.”
Ai will occasionally say something optimistic. Perhaps the Internet will open up the discussion that schools now restrain, for example, even if the blog he ran has been shut down. For the most part, though, Ai’s commentary remains bleak and denunciatory. Few people in China believe in what they are doing, he says, not even the secret police. “I’ve been interrogated by over eight people, and they all told me, ‘This is our job.’...They do not believe anything. But they tell me, ‘You can never win this war.’”
Not soon anyway. In the West, the artist as provocateur—Marcel Duchamp, Warhol and Damien Hirst are well-known examples—is a familiar figure. In a China just emerging as a world power, where the political authorities prize conformity, discipline and the accumulation of riches, an artist working in the provocative Western tradition is still regarded as a threat. Chinese intellectuals may support him, but the Chinese generally have no more understanding of Ai than a typical American has of Duchamp or Warhol. “There are no heroes in modern China,” Ai said.
The West would like to turn Ai into a hero, but he seems reluctant to oblige. He lived in postmodern New York. He knows the celebrity racket and the hero racket. “I don’t believe that much in my own answer,” he said. “My resistance is a symbolic gesture.” But Ai, if not a hero, has found ways to symbolize certain qualities that China may one day celebrate him for protecting and asserting. Free discussion is one. An out-there, dark and Rabelaisian playfulness is another. But the most interesting quality of them all is found in his best works of art: a prophetic dream of China.
Much of Ai’s art is of only passing interest. Like so much conceptual art, it seems little more than a diagram of some pre-conceived moral. Art with a moral too often ends with the moral, which can stopper the imagination. Consider Ai’s amusing and well-known Johnnie Walker piece. Is it suggesting that China is enveloped within—and intoxicated by—Western consumer culture? Of course it is. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t have to think about it anymore. Jokes, even serious jokes, are like that. They’re not as good the second time around.