A British journalist with considerable experience in China illuminates the significance of artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his embodiment of cultural upheaval.
In a good way, this reads like an extended magazine article written for a general readership. Martin presents a profile of the artist based on illicit interviews with Weiwei following his release from 81 days of imprisonment on inscrutable charges, while providing context on the political and cultural developments that have informed his art. The plainspoken lucidity of the prose transcends the murk of so much arts criticism and political theorizing, as the author recognizes that many readers won’t be familiar with the artist’s career and the specifics of Communist Party repression in China. “I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about modern China that would use an account of Ai Weiwei’s life as its backbone,” writes Martin, employing the first-person narrative that initially seems intrusive but ultimately enhances the conversational tone. “His life and that of his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most famous twentieth-century poets, are so intertwined with the great people and events of modern Chinese history that any biographical account would necessarily touch on the main historical events of the post-imperial epoch.” And so this book does, though it is less than a full-scale biography and more of a series of interviews, with the secret police frequently hovering, augmented by the author’s visits with other Chinese dissidents. Weiwei emerges as not only a great disciple of Duchamp and Dada, bridging the totalitarianism of Chairman Mao and Warhol’s Mao, but also a brave activist using his art and advocacy to inspire cultural revolution: “Weiwei’s experience had given him an almost evangelical zeal: he wanted to change China by changing its ideas about art.”
A book that offers great clarity on an important subject without succumbing to oversimplification.