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.
In the studio with China's most famous dissident artist.
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.