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.