Book of defiance

Image of Peter Aspden

Ai Weiwei is the most important artist working in the most interesting country in the world right now. If he is finding it a burden, he hides it well. Notwithstanding a troubling spell in captivity last year, Ai refuses to be silenced. It is partly a matter of historical determinism: the world needs a prominent Chinese dissident around which to frame its reservations over that country’s remarkable rise to power. For obvious reasons, that figure is unlikely to come from the worlds of business or politics. But Ai’s resistance is also a matter of simple courage. The price paid for free artistic expression is easily forgotten in the culturally hegemonic west.

Next month sees the publication of a new book, Ai Weiwei-isms, that collects the artist’s thoughts on a variety of contemporary issues. They are epigrammatic, pungent, uncompromising. And of course they deliberately echo the format of a small book that became one of the most widely read, and ill-understood, publications of the past century.

I turn to the back of my dog-eared copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, aka The Little Red Book, bought many years ago for the price of a cup of tea from Collets bookshop on Charing Cross Road, and find some sobering reflections on culture. “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake,” asserts Mao confidently, “art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” He says he wants “a hundred flowers [to] blossom, a hundred schools of thought [to] contend”. But it is important that they blossom and contend in the right way. “An army without culture is a dull-witted army,” concludes the chairman, “and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy.”

Ai Weiwei has become the enemy within China, and his far from dull-witted new book is an affront to Mao, from its first pages: “A small act is worth a million thoughts,” he writes. “Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.” Enough of sloganeering, he is saying. It is what you do that counts.

In an era where performance art is increasingly valued for the purity of its impact, Ai’s performances are the boldest of all. His art is only ever about one thing, which is the ability to make his art without impediment.

“My work has always been political, because the choice of being an artist is political in China.” His “Sunflower Seeds” installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, consisting of millions of handmade porcelain “seeds”, was an oblique reference to the power of China’s mighty population, and the possibilities through social media of promoting freedom of expression. At other times Ai’s art is more direct. His 2009 work “Remembering” had a message emblazoned on the front of Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum: “She Lived Happily for Seven Years in this World”. The quotation came from the mother of a seven-year-old girl killed in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake; the words were formed with thousands of coloured school rucksacks. It was a criticism of lax building standards that have been blamed for the high death toll, and also a moving statement of grief.

To bring Ai’s reflections bang up to date, I asked him this week, via the book’s editor, Larry Warsh, to compose a new “Ai Weiwei-ism” on the recent transfer of power in China. Could it make a difference? Was there cause for optimism?

Ai’s response was not a hopeful one. “I am completely disillusioned with the recent shift of power. I don’t think it’s even possible for this machine to produce an optimistic possibility or a language of positive change, it is so dysfunctional. [The government] knows that any sort of change will bring down the whole empire.” Ai hopes that his book will act as a kind of primer for young people who will get “very precisely and quickly, a sense of my struggle, what I have to say, and who I am. This book is a friendly book.”

Friendly like a torpedo. The Chinese authorities know they have a problem on their hands with Ai. He is truculent, unafraid, and is just about the shrewdest user of social media around. He is up for the fight. “No outdoor sports can be more elegant than throwing stones at autocracy; no melees can be more exciting than those in cyberspace.” His antagonists have but a feeble counter-attack: “The government computer has one button: delete.”

Who knows if Ai Weiwei-isms will become a best-seller? But here is a man who understands how to get messages to people. His expertise in artful dissemination is the 21st-century equivalent of Andy Warhol’s brilliant populism. How Warhol would have loved the irony of the world’s moneyed elites vying for Ai’s work at auction, while the artist does all he can to disrupt China’s hitherto deft transition to capitalism.

It is a space worth watching. No one knows that better than Ai himself. “[People] always tell me, ‘Weiwei, leave the nation, please.’ Or ‘Live longer and watch them die.’ Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”

‘Ai Weiwei-isms’ by Ai Weiwei is published by Princeton University Press on December 12

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