As our soup – a vivid orange colour worthy of splattering on canvas – arrives, I ask him about his distaste for nostalgia. His Paris-educated father was denounced during the anti-rightist movement of the late 1950s when Ai was just one year old, and sent into internal exile with his family to Manchuria and the deserts of Xinjiang. During the Cultural Revolution, Ai’s father spent years cleaning toilets as part of the campaign against bourgeois intellectuals. “Of course, I had to help my father burn all the books and destroy all the artefacts,” he says, pausing, with a piece of focaccia hovering above his soup. “Anything related to humanity was destroyed,” he adds, stressing the word “humanity”, the quality he feels most lacking in modern China.
Rather than wallow in nostalgia, he wants to ransack the past and strike out into the future. Enthusing about the potential of the internet to connect people and unleash a spirit of inquiry, he says: “We are in a new world, and this new world offers the opportunity for us to reconnect our knowledge and to start anew.” But, I wonder, didn’t his childhood experience during the Cultural Revolution teach him to treasure history, not to splatter it with paint or to cover it with the Coca-Cola logo? (As an artist he has done both to Ming vases.) “We are learning from the past,” he says emphatically. “You have to know it to destroy it. You only can destroy something by being an expert in it. An ordinary person can’t destroy a bridge. Only a structural engineer can do that.”
Even I can smash a vase, I say, alluding to his 1995 work. “Well, you never did it,” he retorts. “People just can’t release their hands and let gravity do the work. I never hesitated.”