Visiting 艾未未: A Journey to Discover The Whereabouts of the Socio-Political Contemporary Artist, Ai WeiWei.
Three months on the road is neither a long nor a short amount of time. As such my overwhelming emotion at the imminent end was with neither relief nor regret. The last 11 weeks had been spent in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, Macau, and, finally, a month travelling up the east coast of China over land and by boat from south to north. I had arrived at the final stop in this with five days in Beijing.
My experience in China was holistically positive. The people, places, and even the authorities had been overwhelmingly kind to me during my entire stay and made it a remarkably easy country to travel through. In every place, no matter how remote, whenever I hit a logistical difficulty, linguistic misunderstanding, or even if I had run out of ideas about what to do that day, someone would arrive, remedy the problem, smile, and leave. Repression was not a feeling that I was very conscious I had come across. This famous Chinese hospitality continued when I arrived in Beijing and was offered a ticket to the closing ceremony of the 2015 IAAF World Athletics Championships in the Bird’s Nest National Stadium. Designed by Hurzog de Meuron alongside Ai WeiWei for the 2008 Olympic Games the iconic structure had become the symbol for the Chinese Government’s success in hosting the games in front of an international audience. Since the games however, Ai distanced himself from the project saying “it was merely a stage for a political party to advertise its glory to the world.” In this time, Ai WeiWei had been imprisoned without charge and interrogated for 81 consecutive days, been put under house arrest for almost three years, been denied visas to numerous countries including Britain, been freed, and continued to vehemently criticize the human rights and individual autonomy infringements that the Chinese Government carried out. History is written by the victors, and in the same way as marginalised voices are muffled in historical narratives I had a feeling whilst in the Bird’s Nest that I had not heard the voice of the repressed, not because it was not there, but because I was not being allowed to hear it. I decided to devote my time in Beijing to try and explore Ai Weiwei’s footprint in the city and beyond all to perhaps see for myself an example of what I was not being allowed to see.
My next stop after the Bird’s Nest was to try and find Ai WeiWei’s house and studio. Ai lives at 258 草场地 (CaoChangDi) to the north east of Beijing, however finding this out proved difficult. The location is filled with the mythology of his constant battle with the Chinese Authorities. It is the place, where he was put under house arrest for over 600 days, and where each day he would put a different bunch of flowers into a bicycle basket outside the gate. It is also his studio where he constructs works and ideas, as well as his main living quarters. All this had been widely published in the British press during the house arrest, however trying to figure out the specifics of its location in China was a different proposition. I had not used a VPN whilst in China to get around the ‘Great Firewall’ of internet censorship and trying to find photos of the flowers in the bicycle, which would lead me to his gate, proved impossible because of this. Searching for his name brought limited results, and searching specifically for the flowers and house arrest provided even less. The majority of the web pages that did come up on the approved search engines that looked to be useful in finding Ai’s house usually drew a seemingly unironic error message of “The operation couldn’t be completed. Invalid argument.” Eventually I contacted a friend in England to do some research for me and got me the address and a little more information.
At this point I had the address of 258 CaoChangDi, but no photo to identify the building. By this stage in my travels I had learnt enough written and spoken Chinese to try and organise how to get there, or so I thought. The closest metro to CaoChangDi was not built at the time I was there so I decided to get the metro as far as I possibly could and try and get a taxi from there. Having got off the metro I then started trying to hail a cab to take me there. Communicating where I wanted to go in Chinese had not really been a problem until now, yet for some reason when I mentioned CaoChangDi six separate taxi drivers all shook their head at me and drove off. To this day I have no idea why, but maybe I can guess. After six separate rejections a taxi driver looked at me, looked left and right nervously and told me to get in. He drove me to about a mile away and said this was the best that he could do.
Walking through CaoChangDi is a journey full of contractions. You are greeted to the village by a large sign calling it an international art village; an immediate sign of the ambitious, outward attitude and global aims of the place. When you begin to walk through the village though, it resembles merely another busy village with no grand aspirations. Noodle shops full of people eating ¥10 dishes, small clothes shops, people running errands on motorcycles, old men gambling on the road. It feels a million miles away from what I might associate with a trendy contemporary art scene. As you continue to walk things begin to change and you can feel wealth amass and a more international feel. Noodle shops are changed for wine bars, hutongs become avenues, more traditional Chinese architecture is swapped for modernist grey bricks, large chrome statues of pillows appear and look congruous. Dotted amongst the sheen however, abandoned cars with broken windows, and anti-establishment graffiti on the community police station sit in the shadow cast by the structures of industry. This place has a real edge to it in a way that I personally had not seen that much of in China.
“From what I can see, inside it is immaculate, busy, and yet peaceful. From what I know, inside it is defiant, political and repressed.”
I began to see contemporary art galleries and felt like I was getting closer to my destination. Finally numbers began to appear on gates and I spied 258 CaoChangDi. A male and female Chinese guardian lion on either side guarded its grand gate. The gate leads into a small courtyard where a young Chinese family were laughing. I stood there for a minute, took a photo, and felt nothing. There was nothing special to me about the building or the atmosphere of the place and after around 10 minutes of walking around the garden I admitted defeat and turned to leave. Walking down to the road and trying to figure out how to get back into Beijing, I ambled past the next house that had a sign on the door that said 258-1. A large red western style gate was open into a carpark with a black Mercedes-Benz, a black BMW and a black Lincoln. A young man walked out of a glass door from one of a complex of buildings and smiled at me. Walking around the complex had the feel of a 21st century new media office block. It still did not feel right. Before I had set off I had expected the studio to feel special, have an aura, however so far this had not been the case. I continued to walk and got to the large grey gate of 258-2. I couldn’t get into the gate but managed to peek through it. Though the gaps in the gate there was a pale uneven concrete courtyard puddles, about five motorcycles under black tarporlines and a bucket of dirty washing in the middle. A French door you cannot see through is flanked by potted plants and nothing is happening. I stood there again for around ten minutes trying to feel something and once again failed, before deciding again to return back to Beijing. I turned away from the gate and began to walk to what looks like a main road. As I did I saw a plaque next to a large metallic turquoise gate that read “258 FAKE.” It was immediately obvious that I had made it. As you peer through the gaps in the gate there is a light concrete path with an immaculately kept garden around it. Looking through the gate people come to and fro the studio carrying large cardboard boxes. A CCTV camera points directly at the gate from inside the wall. I step back from the gate and try to take it in as a whole from the outside. It is a small, nondescript place that I would have easily walked by were I not looking for it. A constantly watched and surveyed building from inside and out – by the art world, by governments, by people. It is a building with a cause too; the microphone of an international megaphone talking about injustice. Ai’s works sell for millions so, in a sense it is also the headquarters of a multimillion dollar business – like the HSBC building or PriceWaterhouseCooper House. From what I can see, inside it is immaculate, busy, and yet peaceful. From what I know, inside it is defiant, political and repressed. I knock on the gate to try and get in but unsurprisingly no one answers. The top of a small square studio building to the left of the gate peaks above the wall with the light in its window – someone is working in there. I eventually return back to Beijing finally having felt what I thought I would feel.
The next day I head to the 798 Art District outside Beijing to continue looking for Ai’s influence around the city. 798 is the remnants of an old military factory that was colonised by artists from 1995 as it was a cheap, large space away from the centre of Beijing. From the mid 80s the artistic Avant-garde in Beijing was not approved by the government and spent many years partially on the run after repeatedly being evicted from every district or region they set up in. 798 then grew and grew over the years, and became a hub for artists, designers, and creatives from all over the world. After a peppered decade where it was threatened with closure, became very trendy and was formally acknowledged and approved by the Chinese Government, it now stands as a gentrified contemporary art centre where studios, private galleries, bookstores and other creative endeavours sit together. While I was there Ai had his first ever solo show in China (after being barred from exhibiting) called “艾未未” (Ai WeiWei). The Chinese government asked that the opening of the exhibition be moved to after the 4th June, which would mark the day of the Tienamenn Square massacre. After negotiations with Ai this was agreed and the managers of the galleries, who claimed that the work was not political (if this is even possible of any art).
The show was split between two adjacent galleries in the district and involved the centrepiece of a 400-year-old late Ming dynasty ancestral hall formally owned by the Wang family that he found during a visit to the town of his father, (poet and political dissident) 艾青 (Ai Qing). The piece was made from 1500 pieces of the building that where moved around 1500 kilometres and reconstructed as a single building through the dividing wall between the Tang Contemporary Art Centre and Galleria Continua. Within one gallery it is impossible to see the entire structure, and as such the symbolism of the building becomes less important. Visitors are encouraged by the architecture to explore the structure from different viewpoints. The exploration rewards visitors with a large floor mounted chandelier in one corner of the structure, numbers on the pillars that hint at its transition, and small traditional Chinese features are highlighted by painted pastel colours. Moving into the next gallery reveals the other half of the structure that is connected by beams in the roof that go through the connecting wall. In this gallery, amongst other things, there is a live projection of the other space so you can voyeuristically watch the people in the other gallery move around in and experience the building.
Trying to collate my visits to the Bird’s Nest and his studio, along with my travels in China as a whole, I was struck by the similarity, at least in scale and ambition, of the huge Chinese Imperial projects such as the Terracotta Army or the Great Wall. I can imagine the reaction of his team when he said that he wanted to make and hand paint a hundred million sunflower ceramic sunflower seeds, or move a huge Ming dynasty ancestral hall 1,500 km, being
similar in a sense to that of the workers asked to build a 5,500 mile long wall to keep the Mongols out, or 8,000 clay soldiers to protect the Emperor’s spirit in the afterlife. These works, aside from their scale, are referential to tradition whilst simultaneously being critical of the past and the present. This criticality in the face of defiance is one that stretches through Ai’s actions, words, and works.
I left Beijing a few days after the military parade to celebrate the victory over Japan in the Second World War (not to commemorate the dead) and got a taste of the flip side of all
the wonderful hospitality I had received. The centre of town was on lockdown, I had to leave my hostel or be locked in for two days, and the Forbidden City was closed along with all the roads in the centre. I was met by an armed policeman at every metro station around town. Although none of this particularly affected me, it was a clear display of the government’s ability to move in and restrict when they wanted to.
For me Ai’s footprint in the city was not about his art, nor about the repression he had faced, but about him as a man and a symbol of people’s ability to fight for freedom using their actions. The Chinese Government has been found to do awful things, from the persecution and forced organ harvesting of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, to hushing up train crashes, to the continued censorship around the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but for me Ai shows that through strength of will and resilience you can begin to bring organisations and governments accountable for these injustices.