The career of Ai Weiwei, a greatly talented and hugely troublesome Chinese artist, unfolds day by day as one of the most compelling individual sagas of this era. Art has never before seen anyone like him. Nor has China. In potential influence, he may now be the most important artist in the world.
Since April 3, he's been in police custody. He hasn't been formally charged but this week the police claimed he's guilty of tax evasion. His real crime, however, is criticizing the government.
Incarceration is no doubt a painful ordeal, but for Ai Weiwei (pronounced aye way-way) it's only the latest of many sensational developments.
Nothing ordinary happens to him. His life, like his art, has been from the beginning a series of bizarre exaggerations. He's known extreme poverty and shame, but also exuberant international success. Over three years, the police have seized his computers, closed his blog, torn down his studio building in Shanghai, beaten him so badly that he required brain surgery -and now silenced him by cutting him off from friends and admirers.
He was born 54 years ago, the son of a poet. When he was a baby, the government declared his father a "rightist" and banished the family to a re-education camp in Xinjiang, the far west of China. The poet was assigned to clean toilets. While growing up, Ai says, "I always tried to hide my name because I belonged to a disgraced family."
At 24, with film and art courses behind him, he left for New York to study at the Parsons School of Design while earning a living by odd jobs, including $15 portrait commissions on the street. His basement apartment in the East Village became a forum where exiled Chinese artists traded ideas. In 1993, when his father grew ill, he returned to China.
Ai has since built a unique career by generating an overwhelming blizzard of ideas. His skilful use of every opening in the art world, and every known method of publicity, demonstrate that he's a born entrepreneur as well as a distinguished maker of images.
Few artists of any kind have exhibited so much versatility. He's been a sculptor, painter, photographer, filmmaker, blogger and architect. He helped develop the Bird's Nest stadium, the architectural sensation of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
After the Olympics, he emerged as a subtle, imaginative and unpredictable social critic. He called the Olympics a superficial spectacle, a "fake smile," unrelated to the real China. Since then, he's emphasized the flaws in everything from China's oppressive politics to its chronically shoddy construction methods -"tofu-dregs engineering," in his phrase.
Thousands of Sichuan children died in 2008 when a major earthquake destroyed their badly built schools. Ai, with 100 volunteer helpers, constructed on his blog a list of the dead children, who were otherwise anonymous. In 2009, he designed a show in Munich, So Sorry, which exhibited 9,000 rucksacks to symbolize the children. The slogan of the exhibition, "She lived happily on this Earth for seven years," was spoken by a woman whose daughter died when her school collapsed.
Over the years, Ai has often redefined the meaning of art. In 2007, Fairytale, an installation-cum-performance piece, was his contribution to the Documenta exhibition in the German town of Kassel. It consisted of flying in a cross-section of 1,001 Chinese citizens, with matching clothes and luggage, and having them wander around Kassel.
Fairytale included rows of 1,001 chairs representing the participants. Since Ai's arrest last month, artists in cities around the world are recalling that event while demonstrating for Ai's release. They bring rows of chairs to Chinese embassies and sit outside in silent protest. (Toronto artists came together with their chairs at the Chinese consulate on St. George Street.)
One Ai Weiwei message comes through to me with special clarity. He makes it plain that the Communist Party of China has become the Capitalist Dictatorship Party: "People associated with the Party are getting very rich. They stripped all of the state-owned property and became tyrants of energy and transportation and everything. They are multi-billionaires, bigger than the Western world thinks."
By a devious turn of history, capitalists in China now own not only the corporations but also the courts, police and the army. It takes an exceptionally brave man to say that with the police looking over his shoulder. No one knows what will happen to him, but certainly he and his opinions get more famous with every day he remains in jail. Who could ever have guessed that this crucial political role would be played by an avant-garde artist?