Ai Weiwei is from Xinjiang (the New Dominion) in Northwest China where his father Ai Qing, the most famous poet of the twentieth century in China, was sent to clean toilets during the Great Leap Forward. He lived in a beige house made of desert clay in the beige army garrison Shihezi (石河子), a town built from nothing but water from the Heavenly Mountains and the sweat of thousands of farmers and herders on the high desert 100 kilometers from where I spent the past year. It was there that he learned how to use his hands and think about how to use them. As he says: “I’m grew up in the desert, so the images that I choose to take or not take somehow reflect my conditions back there. There’s still a choice before you push down the button. (Coming from the desert) means you don’t have equipment. You don’t have a sense to record anything. It’s a very simple life — it’s only what you see and what you can remember when you open your eyes and before you close them.”* Looking at his pictures from his 11 years in New York City where he went three years after his family was rehabilitated to Beijing following the demise of a senile Mao Zedong, I can imagine that in the US he learned to speak his mind and try on ideas. It’s hard not to see a strange style in his straight-ahead appearance, a 20 year-old wearing his traditional Chinese cloth shoes, his olive green double-breasted People’s Liberation Army winter duster in the steel jungle of Times Square, in the junkie wasteland of the Lower East Side, in MOMA trying on André Breton, hobnobbing with Allen Ginsburg and great Chinese purveyors of “Northwest Style” like Wang Meng and Chen Kaige who also started from the beige earth of Northwest China.
Eventually Ai went home to bury his father and start an art renaissance in Beijing. He began to write what he felt. Ai Weiwei was just released from prison after three months of hooded confinement as close to spiritual death as is physically possible. I can imagine that he must have thought about what it felt like for his father a maroon in a Chinese desert, cleaning toilets, digging out a home for free thought with his bare fingers.
*From Ai Weiwei: New York 1983-1993, “Interviews,” Trans. Stephanie H. Tung with Alison Klayman, Chambers Fine Art, Beijing, 2010, pp. 40-41.Photos from Ai Weiwei’s Google+ accountFor more on Ai Weiwei.