Ai Weiwei adopting a stoic pose while resting in the sun at the Left/Right studio, located on the outskirts of Beijing. 

Photos by Christopher Doyle for ArtAsiaPacific. Courtesy Ai Weiwei.

In the courtyard at 258 Fake, in the Caochangdi district of Beijing, is a prototype for the 1,000 tents for Emscher Kunst project Aus der Aufklaerung (“Out of Enlightenment”), to be installed in the Ruhr valley, Germany, beginning June 22, through October 6. The tents can be rented for a nominal fee during that period. 

Ai Weiwei

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Ai Weiwei’s life is indivisible from his art. Even his address, 258 Fake, posted outside his studio-home in Caochangdi, is an artful wordplay. In Chinese, the characters that sound like “fake” (发،ٌ) mean “scientific development,” a Communist Party catchphrase. The spoken words also sound like how a Chinese person would say “fuck” (Fa-ke).

Across the street from the compound two policemen doze in the front seats of an unmarked van. Mounted on a nearby telephone pole, a video camera focuses on Ai’s green metal front door to monitor the comings and goings. Just inside the entrance, F-U-C-K is spelled out in large neon letters on the courtyard wall. The word recalls the “Fuck Off” show Ai co-curated in 2000 with Feng Boyi, in Shanghai, and his series “Study of Perspective” (1995–2003), featuring his extended middle finger directed at, among other icons of power, Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square.

In the center of the grassy courtyard a tent has been erected, a prototype for the interactive 1,000-tent installation planned for an eco-art project in western Germany. The tents will be available for use by the public for a nominal price. Nearby, a cat preens itself in the sun.

Ai lives and works in the studio-house compound, which he designed himself to accommodate his complex life. Friends come to hang out and eat, smoke and talk, joke or play poker. Journalists come for a scoop. The studio was used for the set of his video pastiche of South Korean phenomenon Psy’s pop hit “Gangnam Style.” At the end of the video, Ai dances while wearing handcuffs, commenting directly on the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression and his own arrest in 2011.

Featured in the video are his staff and his close friend, the musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou, a regular at the studio, who was also present during Ai’s 2009 beating and detention by police in Chengdu, where Ai was attempting to testify in the trial of human-rights activist Tan Zuoren. Zuzhou wrote and sang the score for Ai’s recent short film, How to Scientifically Remove a Shiny Screw with Chinese Characteristics from a Moving Vehicle in Eighteen Turns (2013). Shot through the rain-streaked window of a city bus headed across Tiananmen Square, the piece refers to the recent 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, during which time all windows on public transportation were screwed shut for “security” reasons—in fact, so that people couldn’t yell out the windows or throw out protest leaflets.

In Ai’s main office, half a dozen people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, sit clicking away at computers. An assistant comes over to explain that there’s a delay in the morning’s schedule because the police chief in charge of Ai’s probation has made an unexpected visit. An hour later, Ai politely walks the plainclothes agent through the courtyard, past the FUCK sign, to the front gate. Back in the office, Ai explains that the man was confronting him about the nonstop stream of interviews he’s given lately. It’s apparently a violation of his probation to discuss his incarceration with the press. Ai doesn’t appear concerned, or perhaps he’s desensitized to police harassment.

Mold pattern used for Ai’s “Map of China” series (2004), hanging on the studio wall.

On-site photo from the production of Ai’s upcoming heavy-metal album and music video. 


Ai revealing his freshly shorn scalp, standing in front of plans for the installation Forever, constructed from the design of a classic old Chinese bicycle. 

Iron casts of trees, lying on the studio floor covered in plastic sheeting.

Long-whiskered feral cat and resident of Left/Right studio, Beijing.

Since 2011, the authorities have demolished Ai’s Shanghai studio, jailed him in solitary confinement and under psychologically torturous conditions for 81 days, forbidden him to travel since his release, accused him of tax fraud, forced him to pay a fine of 15 million yuan (USD 2.4 million) and have issued an official notice that his Caochangdi studio would also be demolished . . . some day. Stamped with the red seal of the party, the notice stated, “The date for demolition is uncertain.”

Creating uncertainty and arbitrary fear are some of the most effective tools an authoritarian regime has at its disposal. Ai is forced to work under these nebulous conditions. At any moment, his work could be destroyed, and he or his colleagues could be disappeared. Living like this would break the spirit of most men, but it only serves to fuel Ai’s art and resistance.

After a pause, as Ai and some assistants shuffle through a mound of papers depicting upcoming art projects, the artist walks over to a curio cabinet. From one of the shelves he picks up a ten renminbi (RMB) note folded into a paper airplane, with Mao’s head deconstructed in the creases. Ai explains how people had thrown money over his front gate. Since last year, he has received nine million RMB in donations from more than 30,000 private Chinese citizens to help him pay the heavy tax bill levied by the government on his company, Fake Ltd. For each donation, no matter how large or small, Ai’s studio is creating handwritten calligraphy art pieces he calls “loan receipts,” a kind of thank-you-cum-IOU note. He confides that this is taking more time than any of his other projects.

These last weeks, Ai and Zuzhou have spent much of their time on a special project: they are putting the finishing touches on a heavy-metal album and accompanying music video, directed by Christopher Doyle in a highly secretive location and soon to be released on MTV. One day, Ai returns home from shooting his music video a changed man. During the video his four-year-old son, Ai Lao, helped him shave his head and beard. Ai anticipates he’ll be able to roam the streets of Beijing without being recognized. 

On a recent smoggy morning, he jumps into his car, passing the snoozing policemen, and is driven an hour to his large production studio on the outskirts of Beijing. He wants to inspect various works in progress. For security reasons, he chooses to keep this address out of the public domain. In his typical love of wordplay, he simply refers to it, nonsensically, as the Left/Right (Zuoyou) studio.

Like the 40 cats who live there, Ai roams the terrain. Strewn around the factory spaces are old experiments that either never came to fruition, or are remnants of successful projects to be used in new variations. There’s a fallen sculpture of an officer of the People’s Liberation Army. The broken-necked soldier, his decapitated head lying forlorn amid the rubble, is reminiscent of the torn-down statues of toppled dictators throughout history. 

Like many of their generation, Ai and his family suffered throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), as the Red Guards were bent on destroying the “four olds”: old ideas, culture, customs and habits. Ai’s work, in contrast, embraces the old, the commonplace and the traditional. He preserves the past by reshaping history into conceptual art, highlighting the absurdity of a society trying to erase its past to serve its present needs. He transforms Qing dynasty stools and connects them (in classic mortise and tenon technique) into free-rambling grape vines in his work Bang (2013); map templates of China from his “Map of China” series (2004), for which he used ancient wood from demolished temples, hang on a Left/Right wall like an isolated continent adrift.


Film clip from Ai’s music video, shot by Christopher Doyle and Xu Wei, accompanying
his heavy-metal album.

On the walls of yet another room of Left/Right is the latest incarnation of Ai’s bicycle installation Forever. Exactly one hundred years after Duchamp created his original Bicycle Wheel readymade, in 1913, Ai has reinvented his own artistic wheel. Utilizing an old Chinese bicycle (the Forever brand), he transforms a common, mass-produced street vehicle into an existential symbol of eternal recurrence. Taking the concept of eternity a step further, in 2013 Ai cast the bikes into stainless steel—the modern material that is supposed to last forever.

Ai heads back from Left/Right to 258 Fake, where he spends much of his time pecking away online in his personal space in an adjoining building on the left side of the courtyard. Through Twitter accounts, Ai reaches beyond the studio walls, the Chinese firewall and the national border he’s now forbidden to cross. One of the internet’s great communicators, his stature has grown in the netizen community because of his open criticism of the leaders’ phony exterior. Because the censors cannot stay ahead of internet capabilities, his tweets help to break the totalitarian grip on information flow, paving the way for new perceptions of reality.

There is a huge price to pay for opening the door. Imminent danger is inseparable from Ai’s activities. 
On April 4, he learns that Xu Wei, Doyle’s cameraman who shot the MTV video, has turned up missing. Ai calls the police to see if Xu is 
in their custody. Though the police deny it, Ai begins instant messaging, and his posts over the next couple of days confirm the arrest, and tell of Xu’s transfer, bruised and battered, to the Civil Aviation General Hospital—his first words to his girlfriend at the police station were that it is “related to Ai.” This stream of tweets pays off: Xu is released on April 14.

This dangerous cat-and-mouse game will only end when the authorities finally realize that the inhabitant of 258 Fake is real—a real national treasure, not to be feared, but to be appreciated for his revolutionary long march.