On 3 April 2011, Ai Weiwei was going through customs at Beijing Capital International Airport when he was stopped by plain-clothes members of the secret police. They told the dissident artist that they just wanted to talk, but instead they took him outside to a van, put a black hood over his head, and drove him in darkness for two hours to an undisclosed location.
When Ai realised he was being held in a detention centre, he had no idea how long his stay might last. “They told me I would be sentenced to over 10 years,” says the man who six months earlier had filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds – seemingly identical, but each totally unique. He remembers his interrogators emphasising the cruelty of their threat. “At that time, my son was less than two and they said that when I was released he would be 13. The secret police told me very clearly: ‘Your son will never recognise you as his father.’ That touched me.”
This was just the latest in a long series of harassments that Ai suffered after he angered the government by collecting and publicising the names of 5,219 children who had died when their shoddily built schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He is a vocal critic of the Chinese authorities, and there have been brutal consequences. In 2009, he was punched so hard in the head by a secret policeman that he suffered a brain haemorrhage.
In the end, Ai spent 81 long days and nights in a padded cell measuring 12 feet by 24 feet, a size he estimated by counting the floor tiles. If the intention was to crush the rebellious spirit that has defined his defiant 35-year art career, it failed. Ai has the build of a boxer and the mentality of a fighter. Rather than crumbling as the state flexed its power, he found purpose in reflecting on his relationship with his young son and with his own father, Ai Qing, a celebrated poet who was denounced during Chairman Mao’s purges in 1957.
“I said to myself: ‘I have to write down what happened to me, and to my father, so that I can leave it to my son,’” he says. “It was only in detention that I realised there were so many things about my father I didn’t know. This is often the way with parents and children – you think you know everything, but you don’t. You never really investigate or ask questions directly, so that became a sorrow in my life because it’s something I can never catch up on.”