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Artist in the Ai of a storm

Elusive artist and architect Ai Weiwei refuses to be taken in by either the old guard or the change sweeping China. 'Society is falling apart,' he says, but seems only bemused by the process. From Beijing, JOHN BARBER offers a portrait of a radical's radical

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Three photographs mounted on the walls of the Chinese Art Archive and Warehouse -- a collection of pristine grey, brick buildings lost in the industrial suburbs of eastern Beijing, just past the Fifth Ring Road -- show the gallery's owner, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, executing one of his famous works.

The first photo shows the impassive, burly artist standing against a wall, an exquisite, 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty vase in his hands. The second photo shows the vase dropping to the ground while Ai stares stone-faced into the camera. The third photo shows it smashing into pieces on the pavement at his feet.

Any ordinary observer would see an act of daring iconoclasm -- but not the artist himself.

"It's only a gesture," he muttered while examining the work this fall, the day his latest solo exhibition opened half a world away at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. And the purpose of the gesture, he added, is "to show that gravity works."

Hanging nearby is a shades-of-grey canvas depicting a group of corpses, children and adults, lying on the ground in body bags after a notorious industrial accident at a Chinese petrochemical plant.

Yes, the artist admits, it is a sombre and condemning picture. "But also very fashionable," he adds, pointing out the elegant folds of the bags containing the victims. "It looks like high fashion."

Such are the perverse, playful disguises adopted by a fearless truth-teller in today's China. "Nothing is intended to provoke outrage," Ai contends, adding soothingly that "few people come here." The only artistic movement he acknowledges is "me and my cats," and he claims to spend his days staring at the stars, "touched by the feeling of being left alone."

But none of his protests nor his various disguises of arch indifference have prevented Ai Weiwei's emergence as one of the most influential cultural figures in China today.

Ai has been playfully savaging the pieties of official Chinese culture -- and Chinese society as a whole -- ever since his emergence in 1979 as a leader of the first generation of Chinese filmmakers to reject state-sanctioned propaganda.

By turns, he has been a conceptual artist with an international reputation, an underground publisher of considerable influence, the curator of Fuck Off (an exhibition held to protest against the bland offerings of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale) and the owner of a gallery showing some of the most adventurous contemporary art in the country.

After putting up his simple yet elegant suburban home in 60 days, spending the equivalent of $50,000, he has recently emerged as a leading landscape and building designer, most famous for his role as Chinese consultant to avant-garde Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who are designing the extraordinary "bird's nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.

It is a long way from far-western Xinjiang, where Ai grew up, "literally in a camp," after following his father, Ai Qing, a famous poet and unrepentant free-thinker, into exile in 1958.

Indeed, his involvement with the Olympics is as close as he has ever come to aligning himself with a government he openly condemns as nothing but a profit-making machine. "My argument is that my Olympic design is no more important than my design for a toilet seat," he says. "Toilet seat or stadium, I use the same approach."

But he doesn't hesitate to applaud the central government for its decision to marginalize the country's design establishment in the creation of China's most ambitious cultural monuments.

The old guard "failed for 50 years," according to Ai. "They didn't make a single building they could be proud of, and they didn't make one decision that was good for the future."

Government patronage of Western superstars is a welcome purgative.

"Think of the past 100 years," he says. "What has China contributed to the world? Just tell me what, besides cooking and making babies? I'm not against cooking; I love food and think it is very important. But to be a responsible member of international society, you have to do more.

"You are losing the ground," he says to the academicians. "You have had it for 2,000 years and now you are losing it. Better face it."

Ai says that Rem Koolhaas, "bad boy" architect of the wild and as-yet-unbuilt CCTV building for Chinese state-owned television -- the latest target of old-guard wrath -- will be "a great bad example for us."

How can such a monstrosity, the propaganda headquarters of a totalitarian government, be anything but monstrous? "I can't think of a better design for that building," he says.

The latest cultural assault can only do good in a country that is "such a big mess," Ai says.

"Society is falling apart," he says. The country's building boom is "surreal" and grossly inefficient, its lack of aesthetic and moral value as remarkable as its fevered pace. Major planning blunders by a hopelessly opaque bureaucracy pass unnoticed while critics carp endlessly about the appearance of the National Theatre. Unaccountable decision-making is even more damaging than the widespread corruption in government.

"China is trying to open up, but the tools it is using are very, very old tools," Ai says. "Even if you gave these people a new machine, they would break it with their old tools."

Thus, his determination to break with the past and embrace radical new forms of expression. "It's not necessary that we understand it," the artist says. "It's just part of the unknown chemistry in the body of China today -- and the possibility of all the further mistakes we can make. It's also possible that we can make something unique to humanity. I don't think that should be dismissed."

If that sounds like a rallying cry, it's not. The experience of exile, Ai says, has destroyed his belief in changing society. "Maybe I had too much teaching in my early days," he says. "By the time I was 10 years old, I had already seen enough tragedy from collective thinking."

The ghost of social idealism still haunts China, he adds, "and I still don't like it."

He remains intent, in equal degrees, to tell the truth and to stand apart, pleasing himself, watching the stars -- perhaps the most radical possible stance in a society as culturally inchoate as China in the early 21st century.

"Tragically," the artist says, "you have to insist to be an individual."

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