In the spring of 2011, just after his release from illegal detention in Beijing, I interviewed Ai Weiwei about the 81 days he had spent inside. Now that he was “free”, I asked him, would he return to work? After all he was one of the lucky ones: many people who were arrested at the same time as Ai have not been heard of since. Surely he would now give up art and activism and go and lead a quiet life?
“All the time I was inside,” said Ai, “I thought that if ever I get out I will stop all this – I will just go and sit on a beach. But then a day after I was released, a human rights lawyer friend who had also been detained and tortured came to my door. Under the terms of my bail, I was not allowed to meet this man, but there he was outside on the street. I couldn’t turn him away. And also I couldn’t just forget about all those people who were still inside. I will have to carry on.”
Ai Weiwei has been as good as his word. The mammoth work now on display in the Church of Sant’Antonin in Venice is the product of the two years that have passed since he was released. The work is made up of six black shoulder-high iron boxes, each one about 5 metres by 3 metres and weighing 2.5 tonnes. The boxes occupy the nave of the church, which has been cleared of pews. At first glance, the containers appear to be hermetically sealed boxes, or perhaps even lumps of solid black iron. There is something deeply, viscerally unsettling about their brooding presence in the church, their heaviness and scale.
On closer inspection, the viewer notices that each metal block contains a letterbox-like viewing slit. Inside, shrunk to three-quarter size we can see Ai going about his prison routines. In one box he is eating while two guards stand to attention next to him; in another he is showering, with two guards watching his every move; in another he is sleeping, the two guards standing over his bed. Watching this series of horrific tableaux is nausea-inducing. It is a very simple and incredibly powerful work.
In a phone interview, just before the opening of the Biennale, Ai explained the genesis of the work. “All the time I was in jail, I kept thinking about my father. He was an artist and he went to Paris in the early 1930s to study art. But when he returned to Shanghai in 1932, it was the time of the civil war and he was arrested by the Nationalists. He was in jail for almost three years. Obviously he couldn’t paint, so he began to write poetry.”
Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father, wrote many poems in jail. They were smuggled out, and very quickly he became the unofficial poet laureate of the fledgling Communist party. In 1942, Chairman Mao wrote to Ai Qing and invited him to come to the party headquarters at Yanan and discuss how poetry and art should be treated after the revolution. Today the poems that Ai Qing wrote in jail are often quoted by Politburo members during official speeches.
“When I was a small boy, my father used to tell me about his time in jail. He almost died of pneumonia but he was always a positive man. I think I always felt jealous of him for his experience in jail. It was so important to him: it made him a great poet. And when I suddenly found myself sitting in a cell, I think I was a bit relieved. I thought: ‘Now at last, I am like you. I will use this time like you did.’ So, I memorised every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I am an artist and an architect, so I have a good memory for these things.”
Ai’s goal from the start has been to expose the bullying and the torture methods of the Chinese regime, to turn his prison experience – the interrogation, the guards, the Politburo – into a ready-made work in the manner of Marcel Duchamp, who turned non-art objects into works of art.
Ai’s 81-day experience has been recreated in many different media. The transcripts of my original interview with him became the basis for my book Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. Hanging Man in turn became the basis for Howard Brenton’s play #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. A week ago, Ai released a music video, “Dumbass”, which again portrayed his time inside. Now, finally, with the opening of “S.A.C.R.E.D.” in Venice, we get the artist’s definitive recreation of what it is like to be arrested and detained without trial at the beginning of the 21st century in China.