In 2010, the artist Ai Weiwei poured 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower-seed hulls into the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a massive space that invites grandeur and mostly swallows up attempts at it. It was a sensation, his highest-profile commission, and a major breakthrough into the public view. All of this did little to keep the Chinese government from arresting him the following year, throwing a black hood over his head and disappearing him for 81 days.
Ai has not shied from addressing his internment, reanimating it in exacting fiberglass dioramas, for the 2013 Venice Biennale, and, that same year, re-creating it for a music video (a collaboration with the Chinese rocker Zuoxiao Zuzhou). He hasn’t shied from much, really. The 64-year-old artist, who was born in Beijing and currently lives in Cambridge, England, has been one of China’s most voluble agitators of the last 20 years, openly critical of its government’s human-rights abuses, investigating corruption, and inveighing against censorship. His name has become a kind of shorthand for defiance.
“To conventional culture, art should be a nail in the eye,” Ai writes in his first memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, frequently taking his own advice. “It is not at all difficult to become a social activist: as soon as you start expressing concern about the nation’s future, you’re already on a path that could take you straight to jail.”
The memoir’s title comes from a verse by Ai Qing, Weiwei’s father, a poet and public intellectual who became a target of the Cultural Revolution. As he lies awake in his cell more than 40 years on, Weiwei writes, “I thought of my father, and I realized just how incomplete my understanding of him was.” He resolves then to write this book so that his own son need not grapple with the same regret.
“To conventional culture, art should be a nail in the eye.”
Ai Weiwei writes sympathetically of his father’s youth, his birth in the waning days of the Qing dynasty, his artistic awakening in Paris, and his pursuit of a life of the mind, even if it meant a life of destitution and itinerancy. His father’s story is also the story of how China slipped slowly from nationalism into ideological myopia, paranoia, and recrimination.
By the time Ai is 10, he and his father are living in exile in the remote Chinese wilderness. Ai writes about the camp’s mix of drudgery, humiliation, and absurdity, his father tasked to clean latrines during the day and report for public denunciation in the evenings. The strands of his father’s life fold in on his own, the echoes of the past reverberating into the present. “Now as a public enemy, I could stand as an equal with my father,” Ai writes. “After an eighty-year gap, in this same land, similar offenses enabled us to meet.”
“As soon as you start expressing concern about the nation’s future, you’re already on a path that could take you straight to jail.”
That Ai would develop a healthy disregard for authority is no great surprise, and his early art has a gleeful anti-Establishment prurience—photographs of him giving the middle finger to Tiananmen Square, or blithely destroying a Han porcelain urn.
Eager to escape the suffocating confines of Beijing, he gets approval in 1981 to study in the United States, landing in New York City and remaining there for 12 years. His writing about this time is some of the book’s most alive, an artist searching for himself. He enrolls at Parsons, which is “like an expensive kindergarten,” where he sketches out a human figure in a class taught by the artist Sean Scully, who “said coldly that my picture was the worst he’d ever seen.”
He bounces around the city, living in a pre-gentrified Williamsburg, and then Alphabet City, “as dark and gloomy as a movie set in postwar Eastern Europe.” It suits him. “In Lower Manhattan I felt at home amid the dirt and decay and disorder. If, conversely, I’d been given an apartment on Park Avenue, I think I would have died of depression in no time.”
Ai writes about a downtown New York “swept up in a contemporary art craze.” (Ai’s allegiance is to Duchamp, and his work takes on Dada’s countercultural cast and infatuation with the ready-made.) He sublets space in the Tribeca loft of the performance artist Tehching Hsieh, who is spending the year tethered to Linda Montano, and is kept awake by the disco below thumping “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” He takes to wandering alone through the desolate streets in a pair of “cheap Chinese loafers.”
“In Lower Manhattan I felt at home amid the dirt and decay and disorder. If, conversely, I’d been given an apartment on Park Avenue, I think I would have died of depression in no time.”
Adrift in New York City, he performs as an extra in Turandot at the Met, where he “slipped out the back door and feasted on hot dogs and papaya juice at Gray’s Papaya” across the street. He drinks egg creams at East Village Ukrainian diners with Allen Ginsberg, who had met Ai’s father in China, and who reminds Ai of him too, both “boys who never grew up.” He gets by sketching chalk portraits in Times Square.
“What I wanted was for people to leave me alone,” he writes. “At this point I was taking nihilism to extreme lengths, and it was this very confusion of my life that gave me a sense of my own existence.” The nihilism doesn’t last. He records the Tompkins Square Park riot, enthusing him with activism: “Freedom with no restraints and no concerns had lost its novelty.”
Ai’s art matures in tandem with the Internet, and it’s there that his taste for social engagement finds full flourish. “Every character that I tapped … was emblematic of a new kind of freedom.” As his art coalesces around free expression and autocracy’s attempts to stifle it, Ai becomes a patron saint of the disempowered. “The biggest tragedy is when you ignore the lives of others,” he writes.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows functions like a handbook for dissent. Ai is given to lofty pronouncements—“Freedom comes from all the sacrifices you make to achieve it”; “Self-censorship amounts to self-abasement, and timidity is the road to despair”—but these can be excused. They’re presented as a matter of course: flat, inexorable. They’re hard-won.
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, forgetting was a national mode of self-preservation. “Memories were a burden,” Ai writes, “and it was best to be done with them.” But forgetting is as destructive as any state-sponsored punishment. “Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows / Not a trace can be found,” Ai Qing wrote of visiting a ruined city. Ai Weiwei’s memoir becomes another refusal, rejecting obliteration.
Max Lakin is a New York–based writer