Review: A Remarkable Memoir | Book reviews and short stories

TOM ZELMAN Tribune of the Stars

“1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir” by Ai Weiwei, translated from Chinese by Allan H. Barr; Crown, 373 pages, $32.

This memoir is a remarkable—and important—book. In lively, direct prose (with excellent assistance from translator Allan H. Barr) and frequent line drawings, Ai Weiwei, China’s foremost conceptual artist and social activist, offers us a personal perspective on the Chinese history over the past 1,000 years.

As the title (of one of his father’s poems) suggests, Ai Weiwei focuses on historical memory, and in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to substitute understatement and authoritative narratives, he has created a variety of art forms designed to alert the public to the need to preserve the past.

The first half of the book is about two men who figure prominently in shaping Ai’s consciousness. The author traces the life of his father as a young artist, wanderer and budding poet. Ai Qing arrived in Paris in the 1920s to study art, where he was dazzled by the experimental freedom in visual art (Chagall, the Impressionists) and poetry (Breton, Apollinaire) that he found there.

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He then becomes the apostle of “freedom of expression”. Back in China, he is first drawn to the Communist Party enclave in the mountains and then imprisoned for his dissenting opinions, the first of many punishments he endures in his lifetime. Ai Qing seems to be forever remembered as a role model for his son.

The other man is, of course, Mao Zedong, the architect of a stifling orthodoxy that weighs heavily on Ai Qing. As a teenager, Ai Weiwei lived with his father in the “Little Siberia” camp in Xinjiang province during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Here, his father tells stories from his past that clearly resonate with his son and shape his attitudes towards power.

In the second half of the memoir, the author explains the evolution of his art away from art school studies (down with the cultural authorities!) and towards larger works that destabilize “narcotic” qualities. official prose. A clear example is the iconic Bird’s Nest, which he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a tribute to openness, light and transparency. Not content with just designing, he traveled every day during its construction to film and chronicle the hard lives of migrant workers – their poverty and their wounds.

In 2008, the Sichuan earthquake claimed the lives of more than 5,000 school children when their poorly built schools collapsed. In response to the government’s cover-up (“maintain stability”, in official terms), he displayed hundreds of small pink backpacks to keep the tragic deaths out of the public eye.

Perhaps his most shocking act of concept art was the sequence of him smashing an 800-year-old Han Dynasty vase, his symbolic commentary on how his homeland views history.

A self-proclaimed “Contrarian”, Ai Weiwei courts danger by defying the authorities but is not immune to fear. In 2011, he was arrested and interrogated for 81 days, with two guards in his tiny cell 24 hours a day. This chilling experience, too, he later recreated in a museum facility. Yet, in explaining his motivation for his work, he tells us that “freedom…is born through the very act of resistance”, namely artistic creation, which is “the antidote to fear”.

“1000 Years” is a breathtaking self-examination by a courageous artist, written so that his own young son may one day understand the joys and sorrows of Ai Weiwei.

Tom Zelman is professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.

Alycia R. Lindley