Before his rants about corruption made him persona non grata with the Communist Party, before he started agitating for the rights of children and evicted tenants, before he denounced the Beijing Olympics, there were the cats.
In his prolific blog posts, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote paeans to the dozens of stray cats who inhabited his studio and served as his creative muses. “The cats and the dogs in my home enjoy a high status; they seem more like the lords of the manor than I. The poses they strike in the courtyard often inspire more joy in me than the home itself,” he wrote in 2006.
He rambled on about cooking and interior design, both the same in that “you merely need to rely on intuition and the simplest craft to complete your task.” He took up cutting hair, wrote a poem about it and posted photographs of his assistants sporting architectural mohawks and — not to take himself too seriously — a self-portrait in a Bozo the Clown hairdo, with tufts of hair sprouting out of the sides of his head.
The softer and sillier side of the imprisoned artist is in evidence in a new book, “Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006-2009,” published in April by MIT Press. The collection, edited by Beijing-based art critic Lee Ambrozy, is the first major translation of Ai’s writings into English. It came out about the same time that Ai was being whisked out of the Beijing airport by military police to an unknown location to face unknown charges. (State media have since reported that Ai will be charged with tax evasion, although no formal arrest has been made.)
Ai, who turned 54 in prison two weeks ago, was unknown as a writer until recently. He could barely type and seldom used email when he was asked in 2005 to become one of the celebrity bloggers on a new site being launched by the web portal Sina.com.
Ai was intrigued by the invitation. His late father, Ai Qing, had been one of China’s most famous poets, and the artist felt it was time for him to exercise his own writing muscle.
He took to the medium immediately. The writing poured out of him in great streams of consciousness and, at times, in bursts of anger. (Not for nothing does the subtitle of the book refer to “digital rants.”)
When the blog was canceled in 2009, he enthusiastically switched to Twitter, telling an interviewer he liked the discipline of 140 characters and was inspired by something the poet Allen Ginsberg once told him: “The first thought is the best thought.” At the time he was arrested last month, he had nearly 70,000 followers and was one of the most prolific Twitter users in China.
Not surprisingly for an artist and architect, Ai was consumed with the spaces around him. He wrote at length about the studio where he made his home on the outskirts of Beijing; the Beijing alley where he lived as a young child; the earthen cave in remote northwestern Xinjiang where the family was sent in the 1960s after his father was purged; and New York, where he lived and worked in the 1980s.
“I don’t believe that ideal cities or ideal architecture exist, I can only say that meaningful significant cities do,” Ai wrote in a 2006 posting.
Ai loves New York: “The most appealing thing about New York is that it was built from mistakes.” And he loathes Beijing, which he pronounces “unfit for human habitation.”
Reading through Ai’s writings, it is easy to predict he would get into trouble. Whether the topic is art or architecture, urban planning or design, the political has a way of bubbling to the surface. Ai is at his funniest and most caustic writing about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, perhaps taking special delight because of his own role as a consulting architect on the Bird’s Nest stadium.
“For all her forced smiles revealing rows of white teeth, Beijing is quickly catching up with Pyongyang [the North Korean capital]. Could a greater politicized display possibly exist?” he wrote in July 2008, the month before the Games opened. “A society lacking in democracy is incapable of orchestrating true joy for its people.”
The May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province, in which thousands of children were killed when their shoddily built schools collapsed, was the catalyst for a new phase of activism. He started compiling lists of the children killed and their birthdays. In the past, his activism had been confined to rescuing cats and dogs from markets where they were sold to be eaten; with the earthquake, he switched from animal rights to human rights — a treacherous undertaking in China.
In Ai’s later writings, the anger is palpable. In an essay, “Memorial Day,” that ran on the one-year anniversary of the quake, he wrote: “Wave upon wave of mighty propaganda from the national state apparatus cannot erase the persistent memories of the survivors. Crushed, the boneless and incompetent collapsed buildings belong to a generation of those unfortunate villagers, and the tofu-dregs engineering has been shielded, absolved by the clamor of desperate attempts at celebration.”
Two weeks later, on May 28, 2009, Sina.com canceled Ai’s blog and the entire contents were zapped from the Internet. In an essay posted that day titled “I’m Ready,” he more or less predicted what would happen two years later.
“Reject cynicism, reject cooperation, reject fear…. There is nothing to discuss…. I won’t cooperate. If you must, come bring your instruments of torture with you.”
Ai was arrested April 3, 2011.