One night a few years ago, as we passed his studio on the outskirts of Beijing after having dinner with friends, I asked Ai Weiwei a question I'd been thinking about nearly since we'd first met a year earlier: Aren't you afraid of ending up in prison? On the corner was a parked car with someone in the driver's seat; a surveillance camera was perched across the street. "Sometimes I wish they would take me away," he said. "I'm getting old."
That was classic Weiwei: the defiant, weary black humor of a man whose childhood had been defined by his poet father's political banishment by Mao to the desert of Xinjiang, whose art had been shaped in the punk art communities in Beijing and New York, whose political temper had been forged by years of government corruption and injustice. Now, that taunting wish appears to have come true: On Sunday, in an unusual display of political anxiety, authorities detained Weiwei, arguably China's most well-known artist, at the Beijing airport as he was leaving on a trip for Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Weiwei's most famous series of photographs is made up of world landmarks like Tiananmen Square, with his middle finger in the foreground. His studio is called Fake, which isn't just a comment on the art world: In Chinese it's fa ke, a homophone for fuck, the cheeky suggestion he routinely makes to authority. After helping design the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, he called the building a "fake smile," claimed it was modeled after both Ming-dynasty pottery and a toilet bowl, and skipped the opening ceremony.
And then there is the earthquake. Counting, naming and honoring the thousands of schoolchildren who died in Sichuan in May 2008 became an obsession for Weiwei and his Factory-like studio—especially since the government, fearful of local unrest and anger, wanted to make the whole episode go away. That impulse to cover up, obfuscate and crush dissent steeled Weiwei's anger: Even after getting a nearly fatal knock on the head by a policeman in 2009, even after getting his new , million - dollar studio in Shanghai razed last fall, Weiwei has broadcast his increasing dissatisfaction with China's government, through his now-shuttered blog, his 70,000-follower-strong Twitter feed (English version), his incessant documentation, and the other pieces of his life that make up one of the world's most thrilling and vital bodies of artwork.
While most of China's globally recognized artists keep safe inside a bubble of gallery shows, fancy houses and auctions—and while many of its most vocal activists end up in prison—Weiwei, who is in his mid-50s, has managed to defy both conventions. Instead of cars or baubles, he's collected Twitter followers by the thousands with his elliptical and acerbic commentary, becoming an online beacon of hope for a cross-section of disgruntled Chinese society. Imagine a mix of Warhol, Whitman, and Ginsberg (whom he befriended when he lived in New York), with no small bit of Havel thrown in, and it's easy to see why a good number of Weiwei's Twitter followers refer to him as "Ai God."
It wasn't just fearlessness that has kept him going: His global stature and famous father seemed to make him impervious to any serious reprisals by the state. Ignoring him was the government's best weapon. His joke about wanting to be detained was a kind of angry dare.
The joking may have grown muted awhile ago, but not the daring. After a visit by the police to his studio last week, Weiwei tweeted: "Have I been busted already?" When the cops returned on Sunday, following his detention, they came with a search warrant, detained and questioned a number of his large staff of Chinese and foreign assistants, carted away a number of computers and hard drives, and shut off Internet access in the neighborhood. Since his detention, no one has been able to reach Weiwei by the cell phone he keeps always at his side.