Next to the street on the other side of the wall the name of his company – “Fake” – is also written in English. It is a clever pun, since the Chinese pronunciation of the English swear-word is spelt like this in roman script.
On the other side of the courtyard from the room we’re sitting in is Ai’s home, where he lives with his wife and small child as well as a gaggle of cats and a constant flow of visitors, acolytes, well-wishers and hangers-on.
The entire compound was conceptualised by Ai himself and he says it took him just one afternoon to design and less than 60 days to build. Even for China’s turbo-charged construction industry that must be some kind of record.
He describes the design of his home and studio as the “style of no style” – he tried to not have any trace of a “style” at all. “I wanted it to just become like a box,” he says.
A glance around his home and office at the carefully assembled proportions and airy, light-filled spaces is enough to tell he is making fun of me in the inimitable style that imbues his best artworks.
With all the people hanging around, the place feels a little bit like a very comfortable, more wholesome version of Andy Warhol’s Factory except that Chinese state security agents are waiting just outside the walls and could burst in again at the first hint of subversive behaviour.
As we’re sitting there the power goes out and somebody remarks that this is what happened just before they raided the compound last time and took away some of Ai’s employees and many of the computers.
Ai himself was placed in handcuffs with a hood over his head and taken from Beijing International Airport as he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong last April. He says he has no idea where they took him and kept him for 81 days before releasing him on June 22.
His abduction without charge and subsequent weeks without any word on his whereabouts were greeted by an enormous international outcry and taken as a sign of a fresh deterioration in China’s human rights record.
“They wanted to crush me in public and take away my credibility but most people know who I am and actually the government’s efforts only ended up hurting the credibility of the state,” Ai says.