This memoir is a remarkable book — and an important one. In vivid and direct prose (with excellent assistance from translator Allan H. Barr) and frequent line drawings, Ai Weiwei, China's most prominent conceptual artist and social activist, offers us a personal perspective of Chinese history over the past 100 years. As the title (from one of his father's poems) indicates, Ai Weiwei's focus is historical memory, and in confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to substitute euphemism and authorized 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 concerned with two men who loom large in shaping Ai's consciousness. The author traces his father's life as a young artist, a wanderer and a budding poet. Ai Qing arrives in Paris in the 1920s to study art, where he is dazzled by the experimental freedom in visual art (Chagall, the Impressionists) and poetry (Breton, Apollinaire) that he finds there. He thereupon becomes an apostle for "freedom of expression." Returning to China, he is first attracted to the Communist Party enclave in the mountains, then imprisoned for his divergent views, the first of many punishments he endures during his life. Ai Qing seems to be always present in the memoir, a template for his son.
The other man is, of course, Mao Zedong, the architect of a stifling orthodoxy that falls heavily upon Ai Qing. As a teenager, Ai Weiwei lives with his father in the "Little Siberia" camp of Xinjiang Province during the Cultural Revolution years. Here his father recounts stories from his past that clearly resonate with his son and shape his attitudes toward power.
In the second half of the memoir, the author explains the evolution of his art as it moves away from art school studies (down with cultural authorities!) and toward larger works that destabilize the "narcotic" qualities of 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 just to design, he visited each day during its construction to film and chronicle the hard lives of the migrant laborers — their poverty and their injuries.
In 2008, the Sichuan earthquake took the lives of more than 5,000 schoolchildren when their shoddily built schools collapsed. In response to the government's coverup efforts ("maintaining stability," in official terms), he exhibited hundreds of small pink backpacks to keep the tragic deaths in the public eye.
Perhaps his most jarring act of conceptual art was the footage of him smashing an 800-year-old Han dynasty vase, his symbolic commentary on how his native land regards history.
A self-defined "contrarian," Ai Weiwei courts danger by challenging 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 around the clock. This frightening experience, too, he re-created later as a museum installation. Yet in explaining his motivation for his work, he tells us that "freedom ... comes into being through the very act of resistance," namely, the creation of art, which is "the antidote to fear."
"1001 Years" is a breathtaking self-examination of a brave artist, written so that his own young son may one day understand Ai Weiwei's joys and sorrows.
Tom Zelman is professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir
By: Ai Weiwei, translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr.
Publisher: Crown, 373 pages, $32.