“I’ve never had a home,” Ai Weiwei told The Observer. The prolific Chinese conceptual artist has spent much of his life living under forced conditions. Growing up under the oppressive thumb of the Chinese government has fueled Ai’s renowned career of political artistic statements. At times, his fight for free expression has cost him his freedom. At the end of 2019 and after five years of living in Berlin, Ai left his residence in Germany saddened and disillusioned by the country he fled to to escape further persecution in his homeland.
Belonging is a stranger to Ai. As an infant, his family were forced from their Beijing home into a “re-education” labour camp by the Maoist regime. His father, a prominent poet, was one of the hundreds of thousands of outspoken intellectuals targeted by the newly established communist government. "I don't have a place I belong to because China has rejected me since I was born,” said Ai to Die Welt last year. After Mao’s death 19 years later, his family could return to Beijing. Ai studied in the US and was greatly influenced by the ready-made art of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Back in Beijing, he established an art practice with a political edge.
Often with irony or cheek, Ai confronts issues of state control and corruption and of the complex relationship with the West. His long-running photographic series Study of Perspective, shows Chinese and international monuments, public institutions, and tourist sites foregrounded by the artist’s middle finger. Ai caught global attention in 1995 with Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, smashing a 2000-year-old artifact in reference to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and it’s erasure of cultural history. Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint, 2013, takes this same cultural artifact and covers it in glossy industrial car paint, in the shades typical of the European manufacturers now popular in China.
For Ai, life is art and art is politics. His art and his activism are inseparable. He often clashed with Chinese authorities over his demands for democracy, freedom of speech and an end to government corruption and human rights violations. In spite of this, Ai was invited to be the artistic consultant for the Bird’s Nest, Beijing’s 2008 olympic stadium. Not long after, he was beaten by police. In 2011 his city-sponsored Shanghai studio was destroyed by authorities, an event he made several artworks about, including Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012. Three months later, he was arrested and jailed for 81 days. Slapped with a 2.4 million dollar fine for supposed tax evasion, Ai spent the next four years under house arrest. In 2015 he was given back his passport and he quickly made his move for Germany.
While still under a travel ban and constantly surveilled, Ai made much work about this time in his life. Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau museum hosted Ai’s largest solo show to date in 2014. Objects from his detention and symbols of oppression were cast in materials of Chinese state grandeur: Marble Surveillance Cameras, 2010; Jade Handcuffs, 2013. Visitors were invited inside a cardboard recreation of his tiny cell, lights always on, always two guards present. Dialogue surrounding the exhibition spoke heavily of solidarity with Ai, freedom of expression, and condemnation of state oppression and authoritarian rule.
Elsewhere in the Berlin exhibition, titled Evidence, Ai made overt references to current events clouded in suspicion of government corruption and mismanagement. Forge, 2008-2012, an installation of twisted steel rods salvaged from schools destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, pays homage to the victims and points a finger at the subsequent government cover up of the schools’ substandard construction. The insufficient industry inspections that led to the poisoning of Chinese infants by contaminated milk powder, a scandal that hit world-wide news, is the subject of 1,800 Cans of Powdered Milk, 2013.
China has banned Ai from exhibiting in museums and his online presence there is largely blocked; he is being erased from the state-sponsored cultural consciousness. He is afraid to go back. This rejection and absence of belonging is perhaps why he is drawn to the global stories of refugees and displaced people he features in his recent documentary films, including Human Flow, 2017, The Rest, 2019, and virtual reality film Omni, 2019. Now, as a foreigner in Germany, he feels rejected again. Not by targeted acts from a government flexing its power but by a day-to-day ambivalence and even contempt towards immigrants and their potential plight.
Ai has often shared his love for Berlin and is sad to have left the city. Berlin’s multiculturalism and thriving international art scene, plus the overwhelming response from his 2014 show and support from the German government all gave cause for optimism. In reality, these factors did not make up for his personal experience of racism, rudeness, and closed mindedness. Ai noted the growing cultural intolerance and authoritarian mindset in a country where, in 2017, the anti-immigrant, rightwing populist party AFD claimed a 12.6% slice of the vote and, in the following year, a mass public demonstration in Chemnitz chanted: “Foreigners out.”
For now, Ai’s studio remains in Berlin while he and his family live in Cambridge, England. The 19th-century brewers warehouse in East Berlin is one of the city's many industrial spaces converted into a site for art and culture. Ai, a former architect, designed the rebuild himself. This studio almost feels like home, he told The Observer. However, Ai is not afraid of starting over: “Many people have to leave their nation barehanded.” The question is now, can Britain provide the openness and acceptance he seeks?