Given the harrowing experiences that the artist and activist Ai Weiwei has endured over his sixty-four years, it is a bit miraculous to see him exude mordant humor and calm determination throughout his lucid new memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. Even in very dire circumstances, he seems able to engage—maybe even enjoy—one absurdity or another.
Writing about the eighty-one days he spent in Chinese custody in 2011, having been detained after years of outspoken political activity, Ai relishes the cat-and-mouse exchanges he had with his interrogators, who he says accused him of everything from bigamy to subversion. He likens one questioning session to “a car that veers off the road and charges wildly over desolate fields and wild hillsides,” and he recalls an exasperated official exclaiming, “How come you can talk at such great length when art is the topic?” While confined, Ai thought of his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, who was imprisoned for “causing a public disturbance through Communist Party activities” in the 1930s and exiled to remote work camps by the Communists during a purge of government critics in the late 1950s. “I realized I knew very little about his ordeal,” the artist writes, saying he “felt a deep pang of regret at the unbridgeable gap between him and me.” He decided to write a book because “I did not want Ai Lao”—his own son, with his partner, Wang Fen—“to suffer the same regret.”
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows—the title is a phrase from a poem by his father—is a double memoir. The first follows Qing, who was born into a well-off family in a village in Jinhua in 1910, developed into a freethinking painter, traveled to Paris in the late 1920s, and later became enmeshed in the impossible politics of revolutionary China. The second follows Weiwei, who inherited his father’s artistic passions and his stubborn independence.
Ai was nine, in 1967, when his father was banished to an area known as “Little Siberia,” in the Gurbantünggüt Desert during the Cultural Revolution. Along with the future artist’s stepbrother, they were forced to live in a dugout. (Ai’s mother and brother decamped to Beijing for a period.) “The estrangement and hostility that we encountered from the people around us instilled in me a clear awareness of who I was,” Ai writes. Ordered to clean toilets, his father did not complain. “As he put it, earlier in life he’d had no idea who cleaned toilets for him,” he remembers, “and so it wasn’t unreasonable to expect him now to do cleaning for others.” This less-than-happy childhood was punctuated by aesthetic revelations. His father carted along his old paintings wherever they went, and one of their few possessions, a china jar, “brightened even the dimmest corner with the luster of its white porcelain and cobalt blue.”
When the fever of the Cultural Revolution eventually broke in the late ’70s, Qing was restored to his former status in Beijing, and in 1981, Weiwei managed to gain permission to study abroad. He headed to Lower Manhattan, where he “felt at home amid the dirt and decay and disorder.” Ai’s sojourn in New York occasions his liveliest writing. Parsons, where he was a student, was “like an expensive kindergarten,” and Sean Scully, who taught a painting class, “said coldly that my picture was the worst he’d ever seen.” He eventually dropped out, and admits, “I resented having to stretch a canvas over a frame, and I never liked the smell of oils and turpentine.” His few friends included the remarkable performance artist Tehching Hsieh, the freewheeling painter Martin Wong, and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who told Ai that “his warmest memory of China was the hug that my father had given him.” (Ginsberg also shared, “I really don’t know who would be interested in a Chinese artist.”) Feeling listless in the city—“Freedom with no restraints and no concerns had lost its novelty,” he writes—and eager to spend time with his aging father, Ai returned to China in 1993.
For an artist’s memoir, there is little discussion of actual artmaking, and only passing explanations of his rise. Ai dutifully summarizes his greatest hits—the middle finger he gave to Tiananmen Square in 1995, his Zodiac Heads (2010), the Beijing Olympic stadium collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron, his successful effort to bring 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, for Documenta in 2007—but he is most passionate when discussing his activism, which he has folded into his artistic practice. “I see what is in front of me as a ‘ready-made,’ just like Duchamp’s urinal,” Ai writes. “Reality creates greater possibilities for my art.” This is a peculiar interpretation of a concept that its inventor professed was grounded in “indifference,” but it has been productive for Ai. He has done important work leading an amateur investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children died when shoddy buildings collapsed. He has made numerous documentaries, and published a fiery blog that was widely read until it was banned in 2009.
Ai’s memoir, translated into English by Allan H. Barr, is, for its part, accessible and earnest. “Because art reveals the truth that lies deep in the heart, it has the capacity to impart a mighty message,” Ai writes. Such admirable but well-worn sentiments recur—as do similes. He is, at various points, like “a strand of duckweed floating on the water,” “an old soldier returned from battle,” “a miner trapped by an underground collapse,” “a jellyfish . . . the internet had become my ocean,” and, released from jail, “a ball that had jumped out of a spinning roulette wheel.” That affair ended, following international outcry, with Ai being forced to pay $2.4 million for purported tax violations; thousands of supporters provided loans to cover it. After years of monitoring, his passport was returned in 2015, and he headed to Berlin. He has not been back to China. Given his withering attacks on the Chinese Communist Party, he may never return.
But the CCP is not Ai’s only target here. He became a strident critic of Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis after watching people struggle to get ashore in Greece. “Seeing their misery, I felt a part of myself dying,” he says. And in Western democracies, he laments rather vaguely, “politically correct extremism” is curtailing expression. “It is not hard to find examples today of people saying and doing things they don’t believe in,” he says. He slams those who do not speak out about censorship in China: “In the face of authoritarianism, most curators and artists lose the power of speech, nullifying aesthetics and ethics with their moral compromises.”
Ai wrote most of the book while preparing to exit China, fulfilling his goal of recording his life for his son, Ai Lao, who was born in 2009. Shortly after his release, he asks Lao what he thinks of his forced disappearance, and receives a wise reply: “They were doing a commercial for you, to make you more famous.” It’s true. Ai Weiwei is now one of the most famous artists in the world. (In one scene, Elton John invites father and son backstage at a Beijing concert.)
Political conflict has driven Ai. “For me, inspiration comes from resistance—without that, my efforts would be fruitless,” he writes near the end of his book. “Having a real—and powerful—adversary was my good fortune, making freedom all the more tangible.” He argues that “freedom comes from all the sacrifices you make to achieve it.” He has sacrificed a lot. But his adversary has only grown stronger, and he has been erased from public life in his homeland while lauded abroad.
1000 Years arrives just as some in the art world are (quietly) debating whether to pull back from China, given its record on human rights and crackdown in Hong Kong. Do not bet on that happening anytime soon: last month, a coterie of blue-chip galleries opened pop-up shows in a Beijing free-trade zone. But Ai’s century-spanning story shows that even the most seemingly intractable situations eventually evolve. His father emerged from disgrace. Ai, now a father himself, is still hard at work. Describing a piece he installed in the nuclear exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan, he writes, “One day far in the future, when the radiation fully dissipates and people can safely return, my work will be seen.”