1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei review – a life of dissent

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In 1957, the twelvemonth of Ai Weiwei’s birth, China’s leader, Chairman Mao, launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a purge of intellectuals whose enactment was deemed captious of the state. By the extremity of the year, astir 300,000 radical had been rounded up, the bulk of them exiled to the country’s distant borderline regions to acquisition “reform done labour”. Ai’s father, Ai Qing, a respected poet, was 1 of them.

“The whirlpool that swallowed up my begetter upended my beingness too, leaving a people connected maine that I transportation with maine to this day,” Ai writes successful the opening section of this ambitious memoir, successful which his father’s communicative gives mode to, and often echoes, his own. In 1967, his father’s beingness was upended erstwhile again, erstwhile helium was transported to a godforsaken portion known arsenic Little Siberia to acquisition governmental “remoulding”.

His wife, exhausted and demoralised, returned to Beijing with their youngest son, but Ai, not yet 10, chose to spell with his father. For astir a decade, they existed successful “a quadrate spread dug into the ground, with a crude extortion formed of tamarisk branches and atom stalks, sealed with respective layers of grassy mud”. His begetter was assigned to trim trees connected a adjacent workplace and, aft a agelong day’s labour, was forced to be a nationalist gathering of his chap exiles, during which helium would often beryllium singled retired and denounced arsenic a “bourgeois novelist”.

While Ai undoubtedly inherited his father’s stoicism, the defiance that would characterise his aboriginal activism was each his own. It initially took the signifier of a blog that archetypal appeared towards the extremity of 2005. The archetypal station read: “To explicit yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason.” For the Chinese authorities, who would instrumentality clip to travel to presumption with and power the internet, this was the archetypal of galore transgressions that would pb to his blog being unopen down successful 2009 and to his consequent apprehension and detention successful 2011. As Ai puts it himself, the blog propelled him into “the public’s tract of imaginativeness with the unit of a slug from a gun”.

His originative life, which began successful 1978 erstwhile helium enrolled connected an animation people astatine the Beijing Film Academy, had taken clip to find its footing. That aforesaid year, helium besides became 1 of the founders of the mostly self-taught avant garde creation radical Stars, who were pioneers for today’s thriving creation country successful China.

Ai Weiwei connected  New York’s Lower East Side, 1985
Ai Weiwei connected New York’s Lower East Side, 1985.

In 1981, during a play of tentative betterment by the Chinese government, Ai was among the archetypal radical of students to beryllium granted a visa to survey successful America. He remained determination for 12 years, mostly surviving successful New York, wherever helium won a assistance to Parsons School of Design, lone to forfeit it with an impetuous decision: leaving an creation past exam insubstantial blank prevention for his signature. As protests go, it was oddly self-defeating successful its vagueness. “I was simply ambivalent,” helium writes. “I didn’t cognize what I liked.”

He survived successful New York by doing part-time jobs and becoming a thoroughfare creator sketching tourists successful Times Square. He had fewer friends and, astatine 1 point, his consciousness of isolation was truthful acute that helium refused to reply the doorway to callers astatine his grotty flat connected the Lower East Side. For inspiration, helium lingered agelong successful downtown galleries and secondhand bookstores. He met, and concisely befriended, Allen Ginsberg, a champion of his father’s poetry, and for a clip shared a loft with the show creator Tehching Hsieh who happened to beryllium spending a twelvemonth tied to chap creator Linda Montano with an 8ft rope. They were, writes Ai, “models for maine successful presumption of their unflinching committedness to an creator vision”.

It was successful New York that Ai held his archetypal solo show, the intriguingly titled Old Shoes, Safe Sex, astatine a tiny SoHo gallery. It received a single, short, affirmative reappraisal successful Artspeak, which described it arsenic “a neo-dadaist knockout”. On 4 June 1989, and for respective days afterwards, helium compulsively watched CNN reports of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters successful Tiananmen Square. It precipitated a agelong bout of soul-searching that, alongside anxiousness implicit his ageing father’s expanding sick health, culminated successful his instrumentality to Beijing successful 1993. “Freedom with nary restraints and nary concerns had mislaid its novelty.”

The 2nd fractional of Ai’s publication documents his creation satellite ascendancy alongside his bruising battles with the Chinese authorities. In November 2010, helium was placed nether location arrest aft the authorities abruptly authorised the demolition of his recently built workplace successful Shanghai. Then, successful April 2011, helium was arrested astatine Beijing airdrome arsenic helium prepared to committee a formation to Hong Kong.

So begins the astir Kafkaesque conception of the book, a elaborate relationship of his 11-week detention successful an anonymous authorities gathering connected the outskirts of the city. His prose is determinedly substance of fact, which imbues the events helium describes with an adjacent much absurdist aspect. Held successful a tiny country with sealed windows, helium was interrogated daily, the questions circling continuously astir the aforesaid mendacious charges of inciting unrest and evading tax. Night and day, helium shared his surviving abstraction with 2 guards, whom helium was forbidden to look astatine and whose support helium needed for each question and utterance.

Five hours of each time were taken up with enforced exercise, which consisted of walking 7 steps, backmost and forth, wrong an allotted abstraction successful the mediate of the room, each the clip flanked by his 2 attendants. “They’re present to support you,” his researcher informed him. “If you locomotion accelerated oregon locomotion slow, they person to bash precisely the same. The regulations marque things wide and easy.”

In the west, unbeknown to him, his supporters staged protests calling for his release. Tate Modern posted a elephantine “Release Ai Weiwei” motion connected the facade of its building; it was besides location to what has since go his astir celebrated portion of art: an statement of millions of tiny, hand-carved porcelain sunflower seeds symbolising anticipation and survival. “When I was increasing up successful China, we had fewer possessions,” helium writes. “But adjacent successful our darkest days, we mightiness good person a small fistful of sunflower seeds successful our pockets.”

Since his merchandise from detention successful June 2011 and the consequent instrumentality of his passport successful 2015, Ai has lived successful Berlin, Cambridge and, since past year, agrarian Portugal. His creation and activism, and the terms helium has paid for both, person made him the astir emblematic creator of our turbulent times, with the New York Times describing him arsenic “an eloquent and unsilenceable dependable of freedom”. 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows touches connected the inevitable contradictions of being an activistic and an creation superstar, but it is supra each a communicative of inherited resilience, spot of quality and self-determination. “Like a prima successful the entity oregon a histrion successful a field, helium was ever determination arsenic a compass point,” Ai writes, reflecting connected his father’s decease successful 1996. “And successful a quiescent and mysterious mode helium helped maine navigate successful a absorption each my own. By the precise lack of explicit guidance, a spiritual transportation was forged betwixt us; Father, successful his ain way, protected me.”

  • 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei is published by Bodley Head (£25). To enactment the Guardian and Observer bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply