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.
After so many years of provocation, Weiwei's captivity may signal a new state of panic among Chinese officials, who have already engineered the detentions, house arrests and disappearances of more than 200 activists, since abortive calls for an Egypt - like " Jasmine Revolution " surfaced online in February. Weiwei, who was scheduled to fly to New York in May to open a new public exhibition just south of Central Park, was last detained at the airport in December, on his way to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for activist Liu Xiabao, and told to turn around. He had little choice then, and now he seems to have fewer.
After living in China for awhile—I was there from 2006 to 2009—you get used to so many shocks that they're no longer surprising. The combination of breakneck development, deeply rooted cultural ties and the giant panopticon of an unpredictable authoritarian state can make you feel like you're living in an unending magical realist saga, the kind that yields the sort of spectacles that in quick retrospect make as much sense as anything else. Of course that makes sense, you mutter to yourself. Of course your favorite street is being demolished. Of course a gang of police thugs is beating up anyone with dark skin in a drug crack - down on the bar street. Of course the state television headquarters has been set on fire by the fireworks set off by a corrupt construction firm. Of course Ai Weiwei would be detained. Of course this would happen. That's Beijing.
Then again, for all of his apparent cynicism, Weiwei would disagree with that kind of fatalism. If he manages to come out of this unharmed—and whether or not he leaves China for Germany, as he has suggested he might—we can be sure that the experience will only fuel his art, a weapon that's been validated but certainly not defeated by the government.
When I saw him that night in 2008, he was preparing a work called "Descending Light," a massive ziggurat-like chandelier lined with 60,000 ruby-like crystals that looks like it is falling to the floor. Collapse is all over his work, from the Han urns he smashed in his early years to the massive sculpture he made from the old wooden doors of demolished homes that was accidentally destroyed by a stor m, to the Shanghai studio the government razed, a work he now calls one of his masterpieces. The chandelier was literally shedding light on opulent power as it collapses on itself.
"In general people are blind," Weiwei once said to me. "The government, and even people who are insightful and intelligent, we are all blind." In a society in constant flux, a country with "great potential" but limited freedom, he said his work "is a way to not be so scared. To feel you are making something happen within unknown conditions."
Click here to launch a slide show on the art of Ai Weiwei.