I DIDN’T SAY too much while he was away, and in fact, with the exception of a brief sighting at his birthday party a few weeks ago, hadn’t seen him until this morning. The former was a Godfathery affair, a hundred wellwishers, including two wife-figures and the toddler, lawyers, construction foremen, and a washed-up rocker, crammed into the second floor of Eudora Station, the American place named after the owner’s Kansan hometown across from the Lido Holiday Inn. The sycophantic, celebratory crowd gorged themselves on soggy penne in watery marinara and internet-delivery chocolate cake. He blew out some candles for the socially networked smartphone cameras and handed out cartons full of his New York photographs book that he’d stayed up late inscribing to those who had helped him through the preceding months. I wasn’t really even supposed to be at the lunch but was called over by a visiting collector I’d introduced him to five years before any of this; I left without having touched the pasta. “You’re not going to go and do this all over again,” was all I think to say to him. “What? I didn’t do anything,” was all he could say back.
Then, a few weeks ago some American television producers who make an ongoing series about artists and their work asked me to interview him for a segment they’d been planning, also since before the spring. I was skeptical but apparently he had also asked that I do it, and so I obliged. I showed up a few minutes before the shoot and entered, at the request of the assistant who was with him when he was arrested, through the back door which leads into the part of the compound where visitors were once never, ever allowed. As a gift, I brought a giant box of Whiskas sample pouches, schwag which had come my way via my magazine’s parent company, which counts the cat-food brand among its clients.
With a pre-assigned list of questions on my iPad, I sat down unmiked on a Qing-dynasty living-room chair, amidst an elaborate setup of lights and sound equipment. He sat squarely in the center of the only good shot the dark room allows, head framed at left by the giant wardrobe that inspired his Moon Chests, at right by the white brick of his first architectural interior. The central table had been offset into its modular components, a functional Judd. “You used to do this three times a day,” I quipped before we started, remembering how, before, one could barely open the front door for fear of disturbing a shoot just like this. “Used to,” he replied. “This is already a big violation; we can only talk about the art.”
That was all I was planning to do anyway. In Miami a few years ago, I had erred in the same direction, asking one too many questions about getting hit in Sichuan or stepping back from the Bird’s Nest so as to set him up for the crowd-pleasing one-liner, “Can we talk about the art now?” Back then, on the verge of his art-world beatification (which preceded his political martyrdom–pardon the Catholic metaphors–by just a few months), activism seemed like a diversion, threatening to cheapen his standing as a maker of intelligent objects. Of course things played out differently.
And so we talked, bouncing among the almost comically apolitical questions in no particular order other than my best reading of which might best suit him at any given moment. At one point during the interview he registered a smallish protest, noting how much my man-and-his-work line of questioning mirrored that which he had been subject to during the fifty-some interrogation sessions of his captivity. Noting the permaglaze that now covers his eyes, even if he’s got most of his gut back, I called time once we’d been through the litany of influences, biography, and work-by-work explanations. He offered bagels that his visiting documentarian had brought from New York, and we sat in the corner of the emptier-than-before office cracking walnuts one against the other until they’d been heated. The film crew asked the question that the film crew always asks after the interview, and after filming the scene in the front yard, of whether there was any art on the premises to be shot. He ordered an acolyte to open the door to the showroom, and we went in to look at the cat toy on which the polyhedron sculptures are based, to marvel at a wall full of disassembled bicycles.
There on a table was this, a few plates full of porcelain “River Crabs,” the reference immediately obvious to all of the five hundred people who forwarded or commented to the snapshot I immediately streamed to weibo with only the caption “New work by Teacher Ai! Ceramic Crabs!” Subversive internet punnery aside, the crabs were also a reference to a simpler time, before that dig, or indeed the “harmonious society” slogan it parodies, had even been coined. One night, just about five years ago, a few dozen people gathered in Qu Na’r, the restaurant the circle of Ai just called “the cafeteria,” for a long National Day night of perfectly seasonal crabs, each wearing a bracelet of authenticity. That restaurant is gone now. It was definitely better than Eudora Station.
“Really happy to see you this morning, let’s go for crabs one of these days,” I texted a few hours later.
“Indeed! A banquet is in order!” came the response.