Given Ai Weiwei‘s traumatic experiences over the course of his 64 years on Earth, it’s almost astonishing to witness him spin humor into his life and pour it into his new book, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. Even in the most dreadful of circumstances, he seems to be able to engage some form of lightness and ridiculousness into his life.
A tale of two memoirs
Ai relishes the cat-and-mouse conversations he had with his interrogators, who accused him of everything from bigamy to subversion over the course of 81 days in Chinese captivity in 2011, according to his claims. This was after being detained, due to years of vocal political engagement.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows is also a phrase from a poem by his father. A double memoir, the first follows Qing, who was born into a wealthy family in a Jinhua town in 1910. He grew up to be a freethinking painter, moved to Paris in the late 1920s, and eventually became entangled in revolutionary China’s difficult politics. The second follows Weiwei, who inherited his father’s artistic inclinations.
When Ai was a 9-year-old, his father was deported to the Gurbantünggüt Desert’s “Little Siberia” during the Cultural Revolution. They were forced to reside in a dugout with the future artist’s stepbrother. This less-than-joyous boyhood was peppered with aesthetic epiphanies. One of their few assets, a china jar, “brightened even the dimmest area with the glitter of its white porcelain and cobalt blue,” said his father.
When the Cultural Revolution fervor subsided in the late 1970s, Qing was reinstated to his prior position in Beijing, and Weiwei was granted permission to study abroad in 1981. He made his way to Lower Manhattan, where he “felt at home amid the filth, rot, and confusion.” Ai’s time in New York inspired some of his most lively work. He attended Parsons, where he was a student. Though he eventually dropped out, and admitted that he never really liked to paint.
There is minimal discussion of real artmaking in this artist’s memoir, and barely any description of his rise. Ai dutifully summarizes his greatest hits—his middle finger to Tiananmen Square in 1995, his Zodiac Heads (2010), among many others—but he is most passionate when discussing his activism, which he has incorporated into his artistic practice.
Allan H. Barr’s translation of Ai’s memoir into English is accessible and earnest. It reveals truths that lie deep. Make sure to grab a copy of 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows and relish in the wondrous life of the legendary artist. Here’s a few other book recommendations.
Photo via Ai Weiwei (@aiww)