Indeed he has so much to say that the 53-year-old is not only China’s most famous living artist, but also a constant irritant to its authorities. When Tate Modern announced recently that it had commissioned him to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, it was a welcome reminder of his work, which in recent times has become almost overshadowed by his social and political criticism. Ai is now perhaps best known for his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and above all the internet.
Around 26,000 people follow his volley of outrage and satire, facts and aphorisms, on Twitter: “No outdoor sports can be more elegant than throwing stones at autocracy; no melees can be more exciting than those in cyber space,” read one recent missive.
“People often say I started to become too outspoken after a certain period. It’s all because of the internet – if we didn’t have this technology I would be same as everybody else; I couldn’t really amplify my voice,” he says.
But the voice itself was forged in his earliest childhood. “I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.
Watch the Guardian’s video report here.