Ai Weiwei’s walled compound looks like a well-guarded fortress, with one minor incongruous detail. The prominent security camera on the wide street outside belongs to the Chinese authorities and is trained on the entrance so they can watch who comes to visit China’s most famous artist and political dissident.
As I pull up, a group of idle construction workers seem to be paying far more attention to my arrival than seems appropriate and a couple of cars filled with heavy-set men and tinted windows are parked at regular intervals along the quiet road.
This may sound paranoid but it probably isn’t. After all, Ai has been under a form of house arrest since June, when he was released after 81 days of detention and interrogation in an undisclosed location without any charge.
“Police in China can do whatever they want; after 81 days in arbitrary detention you clearly realise that they don’t have to obey their own laws,” Ai says when I finally sit down with the burly, bearded artist in a room adjoining his home studio. “In a society like this there is no negotiation, no discussion, except to tell you that power can crush you any time they want – not only you, your whole family and all people like you.”
In the room with us are a group of volunteers who are using traditional Chinese brushes to write names in beautiful calligraphy on ornate documents that look like receipts.
It turns out these are IOU notes for the 30,000 Chinese citizens who have sent Ai a combined total of around Rmb9m (£900,000) to help him pay a tax bill that the government slapped him with when it finally released him from what independent lawyers say was an illegal detention without charge.
“Tax crimes should be investigated by the tax bureau, not through secret police detention,” Ai says. “Everyone understands that mine is a political case and tax has just been used as an excuse to justify their actions.”
As with almost every aspect of his life, Ai has turned his detention and subsequent tax charges into a spectacular and intricate piece of performance art, of which the beautiful IOU notes are just one part.
In a room next door to us, half a dozen young people sit working on computers while the owner of a San Francisco gallery waits patiently for an audience with the big man.
Across a central courtyard filled with beautiful trees and stone sculptures, giant letters spell out the word f**k in English on the inside of the compound’s tall outer wall, encapsulating Ai’s irreverent attitude.
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.
The conditions of his release from arbitrary detention are extremely restrictive and are the same as those often used to persecute dissidents and political activists in China. He cannot leave Beijing and is required to call the secret police to let them know every time he wants to leave his house so they can follow him everywhere he goes.
“They follow me in cars and take photos of me from bushes and when I go eat in a restaurant they book the table next to me and try to record everything I’m saying,” Ai says.
He is also not supposed to do any interviews, especially with foreign reporters, who are not under the control of the oppressive, pervasive Chinese censorship regime. But Ai wants to speak up for the many supporters, far less famous than he is, who have also been subjected to persecution because of his refusal to back down or stop questioning one-party rule and abuses of power in his country.
He talks about Liu Zhengang, his former business manager, who almost died while in detention at the same time as Ai. And he speaks with great respect for human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who he says lost his licence to practise law five months ago for nothing more than saying Ai’s detention was illegal.
“Police made fun of him because other lawyers have mistresses and luxury cars and make so much money but here he is doing human rights,” Ai says. “They told him they could break him and his family and make them all die.”
Just an hour or two after I leave Ai’s house I get a call telling me that the police have paid a visit with a warrant and summoned his wife to a local police station for questioning. After a few hours she is released but Ai tells me he believes she may have been called in as punishment for him speaking to the media.
“The government desperately wants this guy to be silent but when they do that they make him more popular,” Ai says, speaking in the third person about himself. “I never think I could win but I believe I have a responsibility to state the facts and be accountable to history.”
Everywhere you look in Ai Weiwei’s studio home there are bits and pieces of his most famous artworks – a photo of a hand pulling the finger at the White House, a bowl of porcelain sunflower seeds, some clay river crabs spilling off a plate. But when we ask him what his favorite objects are he says, with the Dadaist sense of the absurd that imbues his artwork, that his favorite objects are his cats. He says it impatiently and gives the sense that he doesn’t care much for the question but it somehow makes sense given his current circumstances. Compared with other pets, cats are generally wild, independent animals that do not like to be kept on a leash. This may be a case of reading too much into the offhand words of a great artist but those are the same characteristics most commonly attributed to Ai himself.
For a video of Ai Weiwei at home, go to www.ft.com/aiweiwei.