In the West, Ai's name was once known only in art circles. After his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on Beijing's Olympic stadium - it was his idea to make it look like a bird's nest - his fame spread, especially when he gave an interview in which he announced that he had 'no interest' in the Olympics or in the Chinese state's propaganda - and that, no, he would not be attending the opening ceremony. Even so, it remains hard to convey the extent of his fame in China. .... Ai Weiwei is not only an artist but also an influential architect, a publisher, a restaurateur, a patron and mentor, and an obsessive blogger (he is read by 10,000 people every day).
And then, on top of everything else, there are his politics. Ai Weiwei's father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. But if the authorities imagined he would now retire quietly to his studio, they were wrong.
Ai says that people who think he now 'hates' the stadium he designed are mistaken. He feels fine about the quality of the design. But, as he tells Rafi Cooper, the planning of the city, and the nature of the regime behind that planning, is another story.
While some gasp at Beijing's extraordinary new skyline, with its statement buildings and rows of cranes, Ai remains singularly unimpressed. 'It's like another revolution,' he says. 'The speed of it. But if you look at the scale of it, you can tell that no time has been devoted to thinking. It has not been done gracefully. It's rough and short-sighted and temporary. Cities always reflect human history. We can't really judge it now but I'm sure there's going to be a lot of saying sorry later. [What we need to know is] who's building it? How do the developers get the land? It's so political. In 1949 most properties lost their owners. They were either kicked out or killed. The nation owned the property. Since then the state has just sold it to people who can afford it. So property should be [according to the government] for the whole nation, yet the government takes the profit. No political, philosophical or moral aesthetic is involved. It's just: let's be rich first. Except that people are finally starting to question: who is getting rich?'
In the past Ai has likened the government to the Mafia. Does he worry about saying such things? He looks quietly dismissive. 'I will not be held back. Not saying things is not good for anybody. I believe every citizen should state their mind. China has never been a democratic society, so candour and responsibility have never been encouraged. People feel hopeless, even about trying to take part in the political process, and they have done for generations.'
More than anything else, Ai believes that the nation is still paying a price for having collectively punished the intellectual classes during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 'The nation is in bad shape,' he says. 'We are still paying the cost in terms of public discussion. We are still paying in every respect.'
Ai describes his life in America fondly. He returned to China in 1993 when his father became ill.
'Friends had told me how it had changed. Yes, there were new roads, more products, cars. But some things had not changed. No freedom, no exchange of ideas. It's still like that today, and it makes me sad. I don't mind material change but how people's minds change is the most precious thing.'
Will this ever change? 'Eventually.' In his lifetime? He grins. 'I will never die when there is not democracy!'
The complete article provides a compelling description of life in three environments: China in its Cultural Revolution period, America in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and China today. Ai Weiwei is a telling observer and chronicler of humanity. Rafi Cooper provides a chronology of the artist's life and work.