The Ai Wei Wei Industry
Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and political dissident, appeared at a Handan police station one late spring afternoon. His hair was very gray, and his blue floral shirt was missing two buttons at belly level. At this point, he’d been detained by the Chinese government for 146 days. The first thing he told the police, and the phrase repeated to them most often in the hours afterward, was I am not Ai Weiwei.
Your eye looks like it’s bulging out of its socket, the reporter told Ai Weiwei. She was speaking of the left eye, which was red while its outer socket, recently drained by Ai Weiwei himself in the bathroom of the police station, had deflated to one-third its healthy volume, so that the inflamed eye sat in it like a halved watermelon atop an empty plastic grocery bag.
Truncheon, Ai Weiwei said, letting the reporter fill in with her imagination the single story possible to fill in given that word, truncheon, in that context. The room, previously busy with the screwing of light bulbs and the scraping of the tripod across the linoleum floor, silenced so that Ai Weiwei’s syllables could reverberate on the equipment, so that each stick could contemplate the narrative arch of the tale of the truncheon and Ai Weiwei’s eye.
But you are Ai Weiwei?
I am not Ai Weiwei.
The lights, coned in aluminum, shined brightly and made the red of his eye look orange, grotesque, unappealing for foreign audiences eating their breakfasts with the BBC playing on the miniature television set hanging from a kitchen cabinet.
Ai Weiwei said that for 146 days, he was kept in a small cell in an unknown province and was beaten at will.
At whose will?
The government’s, he said. There was not much communication. That’s not what the government is good at, communicating.
There were no windows in the room the reporter and Ai Weiwei sat in. It was small and gray and bare of furniture save a perimeter of filing cabinets that were posing as walls and the chairs that the reporter and her colleagues had themselves dragged inside. To anyone who has never been imprisoned, there was the possibility that the room would itself resemble a prison cell. But Ai Weiwei had been imprisoned. He smiled absently and let his untied shoelace dangle from the lip of the tennis shoe loaned to him by a sympathetic police officer.
The reporter leaned in and said that surely the men beating Ai Weiwei told him something.
She was still saying the word, something, when Ai Weiwei cut her off to say that he was only told what he was told from childhood, to become Ai Weiwei.
But you are Ai Weiwei.
No. They do not tell you to become what you are. Do men beat you so that you will tell others that you are the reporter Li? No, they only beat me because I was not what they wanted.
Who is they? You said from childhood. Are you speaking about the persons who raised you?
I do not know. There were many of us. At first they called us Children of ‘57, as this was the year that we were born. And we called ourselves sevensies, a play on their moniker. But then, starting in adolescence, we were termed only Ai Weiwei.
I am sorry.
Ai Weiwei smiled, happy that she understood his affection for the collective nickname. He said, 146 days ago, I was taken from where I was born and put in a cell and beaten. This was not an unusual occurrence, a long period of inexplicable violence, but this morning was the first morning I’d waken up with the door to my cell open and not a single other soul in sight.
Ai Weiwei moved into the home of the reporter, whom he called Li though her name was Kelly. Their interview spread to the farthest reaches of the globe, baffling workday morning viewers in dozens of different languages.
At the end of the recording, Kelly looked into the camera. She said the question remains, why does Ai Weiwei no longer want to be Ai Weiwei?
Her house guest had seen Kelly’s tape of the interview many times but never commented upon it. He asked for eggs and seeded grapes and kiwis, anything but pure starch. Diabetes, he said. She asked him if he wanted to continue to make his art. Ai Weiwei said I never made art. I am not Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei showed up again near Shaoyang, approximately 800 miles from Handan. He wandered the main street of the town, a mining town, in a fresh silk robe whose predominate color was salmon pink though it was also veiny with burgundy and Tiffany blue. Periodically automobiles would pass Ai Weiwei, and his robe would fill like a parachute and reveal his pale calves.
One car stopped and Ai Weiwei said no, he was no, but please take him to a phone, and he would get to the bottom of this. Oh even if it’s the last thing I do.
The interview would be staged with the new Ai Weiwei, the robed Ai Weiwei, delivering his story only to be cut off, mid-sentence, by the old Ai Weiwei, the floral shirted Ai Weiwei, who would say but if you are you then who am I or something similar. An extended confrontation would follow during which, Li said repeatedly, Ai Weiwei would show this new Ai Weiwei to be the fraud he was.
He is not a fraud Ai Weiwei said. He too knows he is not Ai Weiwei.
But to the extent that he looks like Ai Weiwei but is not Ai Weiwei, he is a fraud, said Kelly. This isn’t the penal code, this is arithmetic.
Ai Weiwei nodded. He knew that if the new Ai Weiwei was a fraud then he was one as well, but he didn’t mention this since without his speaking a word, Kelly had already spoken its ultimate retort.
And obviously you’re not the fraud, you’re you.
The robed Ai Weiwei described the many-fold ways in which he was not Ai Weiwei (my feelings toward my hair are highly ambivalent; my positions on child-rearing are much less inclined toward the nuclear model, as I was raised in an Ai Weiwei breeding collective) when the shirted Ai Weiwei stepped on stage.
So you are not Ai Weiwei.
And you are not Ai Weiwei.
They sat on wooden chairs next to each other and regarded their other’s face. It was like a man staring into a mirror that was subtly warped or wet and freckled with water droplets, a very slight difference. The robed man had a blemish on his left cheek and an ingrown hair on his upper lip. There was also a half-inch height difference, though it could go either way depending on which angle you were staring at them from.
The whole thing was never broadcast, as it was made obsolete by developments from Bozhou, where two more Ai Weiweis were found, on (nearly) opposite sides of the city.
When the tenth Ai Weiwei appeared in the south, in the Foshan prefecture, a press conference was called, and all the Ai Weiweis sat at a long table and submitted themselves to questions from an international sampling of journalists. Two of the Ai Weiweis recognized each other. The rest believed they’d come from separate Ai Weiwei farms, spread throughout the whole of the country.
And you expect us to believe this? asked the first reporter, who was younger than the Ai Weiweis and wore a suit fit too snuggly around the shoulders. Ai Weiwei breeders?
Yes, said a white cotton T-shirt Ai Weiwei, bluntly.
We believe it, said a soft fisherman hat Ai Weiwei, honestly.
It wouldn’t be the first time, said a green-cube tie Ai Weiwei, cryptically.
One reporter, who like the first was young but was also very skinny and sat into the back of his chair with enough force that the Ai Weiweis were concerned it might crack at any moment, assumed, for a moment, that they weren’t any of them Ai Weiwei. “So what do you think of Ai Weiwei?”
An admiring tisk-tisk-tisk was heard.
The most powerful figure in art today, said an Ai Weiwei in a merlot-stained beige dress shirt. Brought a thousand-and-one Chinese to Germany just by asking.
By asking fans, said an Ai Weiwei whose beard held a crust of red crab leg. An artist with thousands of devoted fans. Whose scribbles reverberate for weeks. For whom all of China is the pond on which the pebble of his pen skips and skims and glances across, to the other side.
To the West, said an Ai Weiwei who looked like all the other Ai Weiweis in every indefinite respect but none of the particulars. The artist whose pen skips to the West.
But that’s not why he’s powerful, reminded the crabbed Ai Weiwei.
Kelly watched the press conference from the front row, in between two cameramen whose bulbs flashed at unpredictable intervals.
And now I have lost him forever, she thought.
Two men stood between a house and a field, and their dialogue was recorded:
Do you know how easy it is to discredit a politician? All it takes is one woman—or one man—saying one thing, and even if it’s dismissed, there is forever the doubt. Just one woman. Just a few sentences. Very simple. But do you know how hard it is to discredit an artist? Impossible!
An artist, the man said in disbelief. An artist… What is there to discredit?
Exactly, said the first man as he stroked his chin, wishing he had a beard. You can’t dismiss a man who’s never been called to the table. The complete irrelevance and unimportance of the artists make them unsquashable. Unlike the terrorists and the rebels, they ask for no followers, they want only to be heard and, sadly, no one does that.
A tree falls…
Yes, yes, you understand. If an artist speaks and no one notices, which is inevitable, how do we recognize it to censor it?
The question becomes, eventually, what is the difference between art and silence, and the only answer, I believe, is that the creation of art makes the artist feel better about himself.
You have a room full of smiling men; how do you tell the artists from the men who’ve recently relieved themselves?
That assumes a difference between art and bowel movements.
And how do you tell the difference between constipated men and constipated artists?
The nation which produces solely liquid waste is the happy nation.
An old axiom.
A major American rock musician played China as the many Ai Weiweis were first coming to light, an event which started brouhaha in the musician’s own country. First, an editorial was published, chastising the rock star for playing a rock-and-roll concert in a nation that dared imprison not just one important artist but dozens of just that one. There was a counter-editorial, written by none other than the rock star himself, decrying the idea that the rock star couldn’t play music in a country
whose policies he did not agree with. What followed was a vicious set of volleys (blog retorts) and counter-volleys (boycotts) and loves (compact disk purchasings and subsequent ceremonial burnings organized by university clubs) and counter-loves (one dimly lit march, resulting in three accidental deaths). Brouhaha of the first order, it was.
And so the rock star released a statement saying that he would return to China for one night only, and his critics assumed the development would do no less than spark global May-68 Bastille busting, though none of them bought tickets anyhow. (A few hundred American boosters of the rocker flew in just for the concert, maybe only a hundred, the point being that they were completely swallowed by the otherwise of -brown sea of politely bobbing Chinese that made up the rock star’s audience.) The set list was nothing if not idiosyncratic. The rock star came to the mic and said,
These are my most political songs for my most political fans, before he launched into a late-mid-period selection whose lyrics were derived from a popular children’s rhyme regarding a rather fantastical spoon. Then he play a dozen other nursery rhyme songs, more than anyone realized he had, so that it would be counted as a virtue for decades that the show was so heavily publicized and therefore well-recorded, as bootlegged copies from this date were the only existing copy of at least three songs played at the concert.
It might have been decried as a strange and whimsical failure were it not for the moment when the rock star introduced his band and, in the last, his backup singers, a whole choir of black women, each of the same curvy proportions, a cookie-cutter line-up of gospel singers with hair sprayed down to splintery fiberglass. Ladies and gentlemen, the rock star said, this is Ai Weiwei, and the first singer took off his black woman mask, and the rock star said again ladies and gentlemen, this is Ai Weiwei, and again another mask and another Ai Weiwei, and again, eighteen more times.
For their second encore, the rock star played the anthem of the People’s Republic of China and introduced it by saying this is a song from a movie, which is true, by the way, it is.
Two weeks later, the rock star was invited to play a third show in China by the government, which the rock star did, playing in exact replica his very first show there. There were no Ai Weiweis to be found.
Afterward, he was banned from ever playing in China again, though some Ai Weiweis continue to this day to tour the countryside, performing the rock star’s songs.
But of course, the artist was not detained because he was an artist. It was because he said the special words in public and in print: jasmine, aloe, myrtle, sleeping beauty.
He was important to the extent that he was capable of organizing. The artist the organizer was arrested, not the artist the artist. And the government and the press downplay this, they list his function as “artist” when it is not.
The goal of the government is to make its people believe that art is important?
Which it is not.
A center was established in the Sichuan province, the Center for Ai Weiweis, two kilometers north of a rendering plant. The state took credit for the Center, a fair indicator that it was not, in fact, behind it. The Ai Weiweis spent their time discussing their personal emotional concerns about not being Ai Weiwei and being mistaken for Ai Weiwei, even by other Ai Weiweis. The doctors observed this distress and devised a ritual dialogue for the patients to enact as a so-to-speak talking cure.
Hello, are you the famous Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei?
No, I believe you are mistaken. (Turn around.)
(Hand on shoulder.) Don’t be modest, you are the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Perhaps we mean a different man.
Theoretically, arts and crafts took up the rest of the Ai Weiweis’ days, yet they refused to take up their Popsicle sticks and actually build anything and instead discussed the work of a famous artist they admired while they sat in the cafeteria with all their materials in front of them.
Do you remember the stadium? asked an extraordinarily cowlicked Ai Weiwei.
Yes, we all remember the stadium, said everyone else.
In the evenings, there were many hushed but aggressive discussions over who was behind them all and why they’d spent their lives becoming another man. A popular theory was that the Swedes were behind it all. This stemmed from a Swedish-derived honorific that many remembered from their childhood dreams. Still others thought the Swedes were behind the Center alone, that the Swedes implanted the honorific in their memories for reasons too sinister to infer.
Over 150 Ai Weiweis lived in the Center, and they went on walks together, in one near-endless straight line, all the way to the outermost gates of the rendering plant. Once an Ai Weiwei went missing and was discovered past the gate, leaning against a steel grate out of which came a billowing smoke cloud from the plant, the smell of blood and lard and pig bone becoming ash.
I am trying to make a hand ax, the Ai Weiwei said upon questioning. Just like our ancestors did, using hammer-stones and flakes.
The fumes from the rendering plant were making him cry uncontrollably and his hand-ax, when given over, was moist and salty.
The wives of Ai Weiwei: beautiful some, old some, Chinese most. A few Mongolian, Korean, Arabic, white, American. These were the wives identified on the marriage certificates which trickled into local presses, day by day, leaked by government authorities.
Wives could be divided into two categories. The first: those who enjoyed the publicity, who spoke to reporters, flirted with news anchors, and bought brightly colored clothing in sizes just large enough for them to fit into. They spoke of their adoration for their particular Ai Weiwei, the real Ai Weiwei, who was behind so much beauty in modern China, even if today he’d gotten a bit away from himself. Or they wrote long editorials to newspapers, all variations on the theme of a once-in-a-lifetime talent being crowded out by others. Or they called families they hardly knew, to complain about their newly absentee husbands, and it was not uncommon for quite a while to hear talk of these calls, or to receive one yourself, from a polite young woman met on several occasions, and you’d had no idea who her husband was. Sometimes the husband had been met, and he was known to be Ai but not that Ai, certainly not, and what a surprise this phone call always was.
Then there were the wives who did none of those things, seen at banks and outside hospitals, crying into handbags. For a time, it was assumed that all women looking forlornly, especially, for some reason, forlornly at ducks or at bodies of water inhabited by ducks, were married to an Ai Weiwei. These figures inspired no shortage of poetry.
In time, the poetry disappeared, as did the women.
Overseas, a new product came on the market called the Ai Weiwei Hand Ax, manufactured by the inhabitants of the Center for Ai Weiweis. Rated the Number 1 Hand Ax by Consumer Report and even the Best New Kitchen Essential by Food and Wine, it was immediately celebrated by everyone from vintage car enthusiasts to bartenders. There were even softball leagues popping up across the American south which advocated the use of the Ai Weiwei Hand Ax, blade facing backward, as a bat. A dangerous but rewarding pursuit, they said.
The Ai Weiweis themselves were happy with their new-found technical triumph, most especially the Ai Weiwei who created the first Hand Ax at the rendering plant while crying. He would walk through the halls with his head held high and with a special servant Ai Weiwei who devoted his whole life to shuffling after the hand ax-creating Ai Weiwei, cutting his vegetables for him and serving him his tea in the afternoon. This is some life you’ve made for yourself, the hand ax-creating Ai Weiwei would say to his servant when they sat down to tea, and they both would laugh. Of course, the other Ai Weiweis would listen through the wall (these two had a special room, formerly belonging to the shadowy doctors of the Center) and all the other Ai Weiweis would laugh as well.
The reporter Kelly left the store at approximately 20:34, holding a microwave in a white box against her chest. Walking to her car, she heard the name “Li” repeated, not particularly loudly, so that she was unsure if it was a call or if she was accidentally eavesdropping on a chant meant to be heard by some private deity.
It had been two years since Ai Weiwei had moved out of her apartment.
They chatted briefly, and Kelly rested her box on the curb. She’d retained her same job, failing to rise any higher in the establishment. Yet she was too cautious to attempt a move.
Ai Weiwei said he was much the same way, too scared to try anything new.
And what are you doing? she asked him.
Wandering towns, he said. Odd jobs. I worked selling used cars; the dealer thought that I might provide name recognition. I was there six months but didn’t want to settle down, and I came back here.
I understand, Kelly said. She bent down to pick up her box but snapped up before doing so. She said, gently, I just thought you could have been so much more.
I was part of a phenomenon, said Ai Weiwei. My fellow shadows and I were in newspapers and magazines and had television news specials devoted to ourselves.
But, in the end, Kelly said, you accomplished nothing.
And now Ai Weiwei is part of history, said Ai Weiwei. Until I die, men will see my face and think they know the story of it.
Perhaps, she said, and Ai Weiwei left before she could pick up her bag. In time, Kelly began to think of her experience with Ai Weiwei and the Ai Weiweis more positively. This new positive attitude showed through in her work, and she was quickly promoted.