Feature

Life in a Glass House

Life in a Glass House

Two government security cameras mounted on lampposts are trained on a bright teal-blue door that stands out on a sleepy suburban road in northeast Beijing, the front entrance of artist Ai Weiwei’s studio. Recently, the 54-year-old Ai strolled down his quiet, tree-lined street and hung red lanterns on both lampposts. "Like National Day every day," he told me, with more than a touch of irony in his voice. (National Day is the Oct. 1 patriotic holiday marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China.) It’s a safe bet that Ai, who this spring was detained by the police for 81 days and recently was slapped with a jaw-dropping $2.4 million bill for alleged unpaid taxes and penalties (in the midst of the largest crackdown on Chinese dissidents in two decades), does not feel these are celebratory times.

I had come on a smoggy fall morning with photographer Matthew Niederhauser to shoot still portraits of Ai for Foreign Policy‘s "Top 100 Global Thinkers" issue, in which he ranks No. 18. By the conditions of his release from detention, Ai was not then allowed to give formal interviews or make public political statements. He was not allowed to discuss censorship or human rights in China, what happened to him during his detention, or broader questions about China’s future. So instead, we chatted about art and cats.

Ai’s studio complex, built in 1999 in northeast Beijing’s tranquil Caochangdi village, consists of a brick courtyard enclosing a garden with bamboo stalks and an orange tree, as well as two main buildings. One is his studio; the other, less than 10 yards away, is his home. He spends most of his days padding quietly between these two buildings. On the interior side of one wall of the courtyard, four letters hang: F, U, C, K.

In the small room outside the main studio, several young assistants sit at computers examining photos and updating files. Mounted behind them is a giant black-and-white poster, filling nearly an entire wall, printed with some 5,300 names and birth dates: a memorial to the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them trapped inside collapsed school buildings. Ai has described the poorly constructed buildings as "tofu-skin schools."

Ai’s work, veering from abrasive to compassionate, resonates with the old American journalistic credo, "Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." Fundamentally, it is a matter of temperament, not ideology; yet in China, it’s difficult to hold such convictions and remain apolitical. Perhaps not surprisingly, during our conversation Ai appears to restrain himself from political comment with some difficulty.

Inside the main studio — a long, high-ceiled room with a skylight — a slightly grainy black-and-white photograph tucked in a corner shows a fist raised in front of the White House, middle finger extended. "Is that your hand?" I ask.

He nods. "From 1995."

"More hopeful times," I muse.

He nods more vigorously.  

Ai is wearing a loose blue shirt and olive pants, a version of his everyday uniform. He moves languidly and stands with feet planted firmly apart. His surname sounds like the Chinese word for "love," and he is nicknamed "god of love" by his fans. Quite often, media coverage emphasizes Ai’s daring or outraged side, but in person, he comes across as humble and tender.

While he is talking, one of his many cats, a large, white fur ball with a long tail, comes and rubs its back against his pant leg. There are at least 20 cats prowling around the studio. All are refugees. "We have too many wild cats," he tells me. "We feed them and give them medicine, and it attracts more." The white cat, which he scoops up to scratch behind its ears, is 12 or 13 years old — well into feline middle age; it moves with a slight jerk in its step, but Ai says it is one of his favorites.

As Ai poses next to a porcelain "pedestal of tofu" in the courtyard (the photographer debates having him stand on it, but decides it’s too fragile), I notice that he is regularly slipping out his iPhone to take his own photos. Later, Ai explains that he takes informal portraits of the steady stream of people who come from around the world to take portraits of him.

"Do they all the portraits look the same?"

"No," he says pensively. "All very different."

In October, ArtReview magazine named Ai 2011’s most powerful artist in the world. When I brought that up, he simply shrugged. His life today — working in confined quarters, surrounded by wild cats — hardly drips with glamour or obvious accoutrements of authority. Under these circumstances, he clearly does not feel especially powerful. It is only the two security cameras trained on his doorstep that testify to the fact that others think otherwise.