Chinese maverick artist Ai Weiwei in 'constant nightmare' since detention
China’s maverick artist Ai Weiwei has spoken out directly for the time about his 81-day incarceration at the hands of China’s secret police, likening his experience to a Kafkaesque nightmare.
In an emotional article for the US magazine Newsweek, Ai, an outspoken critic of China’s government whose Sunflower Seeds filled the Tate Modern last year, gives a moving and lyrical account of his state of mind during his detention.
“You’re in total isolation. And you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There’s no way to even question it,” he wrote of the experience of being detained.
“You’re not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It’s very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs,” he wrote.
Since being released in June, Ai has been living in his Beijing studio subject to tight controls, including being unable to leave the city without permission or give interviews to the media about his experiences.
Officially Ai, who was never charged, was investigated for tax avoidance. But accounts of his detention that emerged earlier this month suggested he had been arrested as a result of his championing of civil rights causes.
Sources close to his studio revealed the intense psychological pressure Ai was put under, as he was placed under 24-hour scrutiny and subject to aggressive interrogations.
At one point, the sources said his gaolers jeered that China had not changed since the days of the Cultural Revolution when such "struggle sessions" against political dissidents became daily occurrences.
It is not clear whether the Chinese authorities will view the 800-word first person piece as a breach of Ai’s release conditions. The rules are understood to forbid interviews but do not specifically state that he cannot write articles himself.
Entitled “The City: Beijing”, the article appears to use Ai’s dark vision of modern Beijing – a city, he says, of power and money, filled with desperate, hopeless citizens – as a metaphor for his own troubled state of mind.
As well as attacking the opaque workings of China’s judicial system, he also attacks business-hungry foreigners for being hoodwinked into believing Beijing is like any other western city by suit-wearing Communist Party officials while “they deny us basic rights”.
With black understatement, Ai extols the positives about living in modern China – “People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks”. – and then wonders out loud why his fellow citizens are so cowed, urging them not to be so.
“Last week I walked in one [park], and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder,” he writes, “Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for?”
Despairingly, Ai concludes: “This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.”