I'm the trash man? That's ok

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei stands at the door to his studio in Beijing, May 22, 2013.

SINGAPORE - In Singapore, as in Hong Kong, the Chinese snap up cans of baby milk powder to bring back to China.

But Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is not going with the flow. He is sending 1,815 cans of the white stuff to Singapore instead for his solo show here next month.

It is illegal to take more than two cans of baby milk powder out of Hong Kong, but legal to ship out more than a thousand of these once they are classified as art objects, he noted.

"If we were to give them to people who need the milk powder, what would the authorities say?" Ai, 56, mused when he sat down for an interview with Life! at his Beijing studio last week.

The milk cans will be put together to form a map of China in an installation titled Baby Formula 2013 at the artist's first solo show in Singapore, at a private gallery.

The burly man with the arched eyebrows and a wispy Taoist master's beard, revered outside China but resented by Beijing for his activism, was invited by Singapore gallery owner Michael Janssen.

"I have been following Ai Weiwei's career for a long time and I believe he is one of the most important artists of our time. He is an excellent sculptor and conceptual artist and possesses a sharp political mind," Mr Janssen told Life!.

In turn, Ai felt that Singapore was the right fit for the baby formula installation, which will be shown with another work called Wallpapers, as it is "a strongly Chinese society" with a good grasp of Asian affairs.

It took some effort, though, to collect the milk powder, all foreign brands prized by Chinese parents who have sworn off domestic ones after the Sanlu milk powder scandal in 2008. About 300,000 Chinese toddlers fell sick and six died after drinking tainted milk that year.

Ai, who has a four-year-old son, said: "When a country punishes people not just for smuggling drugs but also for smuggling baby milk powder, we know it's a very dangerous sign."

He hopes his work will resonate in Singapore, which he has not visited, though he has heard of "the beautiful casinos".

"It is more orderly, a society with the rule of law. Also, it has higher levels of education attainment and is a more monotonous society," he said of Singapore.

On what he found dan yi, or monotonous, he said: "Its society is not as complex as China's, be it in its history or political background. The structure of its society is such that it has a lot of white- collar workers... mainly in the IT industry?"

He added with a smile: "It seems more like a big company to me, though it is probably not right to say this."

You would not think that he would care whether it is right or wrong to speak his mind. After all, he has become famous globally for daring to stick up his middle finger at the Chinese government.

He did this literally, in a photograph showing his third finger stuck out against Tiananmen Square, a symbol of Chinese political power, as well as metaphorically, by mobilising volunteers to collect details of school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Many of them could have survived if their school buildings had been made of firmer stuff, a point that officials had wanted to hush up.

His reputation looms large: as the iconoclast who smashed a Han dynasty urn for art; and the jester who wore lipstick and cross-dressed for his debut music single Dumb*** and who shook his booty like South Korean phenomenon Psy in a spoof of the Gangnam Style video.

But Ai Weiwei in person seemed serious and soft-spoken. In fact, this reporter did not even notice initially when he walked into the office, peopled by young intense types in shorts and sandals, minutes before the interview.

Before he became a thorn in the side of China's powerful, he was very much an artist feted by the regime's media and was involved in designing the "Bird's Nest", Beijing's Olympic Stadium.

His late father Ai Qing was like a poet laureate of the Communist Party, whose pithy lines ("Why do I often have tears in my eyes? It's because I love this land deeply and completely.") are often recited by the likes of former premier Wen Jiabao.

In April 2011, however, Ai junior was detained ostensibly for state subversion, a nebulous charge pinned on many dissidents. He was locked up without warning or given a chance to defend himself, and was released in similar fashion 81 days later.

"I'm now living (like a dog) with my tail pinched between my legs," he told Life! with a look of resignation.

He has been barred from travelling outside of China since his release. Today, he still has minders watching him if he so much as steps out of his compound.

They are probably listening in right now, he said with a glint in his eye, in the middle of the 50-minute interview in the courtyard garden of his home/studio, a sprawling compound deep inside the Caochangdi art enclave in Beijing's north-eastern outskirts, near its international airport.

He noted the irony of his arrest, 80 years after his dad was locked up for political dissent by the Kuomintang, the very party which the communists had sworn to be the opposite of.

Why has the current regime not reflected on its ways, he wondered. "China is such a big country facing such great changes, but in some areas, it has maintained what had been done 50 years, half a century ago."

China will not become a great country that influences world civilisation until it learns to respect its people's rights, like the right to express themselves, he said.

And all that talk from top leader Xi Jinping about the Chinese dream of national renaissance will not matter. "All I can think of are nightmares," he said.

Up till now, the authorities have not accounted for why they locked him up, he said, though they later fined him 15 million yuan (S$3 million) for tax evasion.

"They told me directly that we want everyone to know that you are a swindler. We want to smear your reputation because you are very influential and you criticise the government," he said.

It worked to some extent.

Some Chinese see him as one whose morals are suspect, given his seeming liking for taking nude photos and his fathering a son with a woman he had an affair with. He is married to artist Lu Qing, 49. They have no children.

But Ai, dressed in a black T-shirt, navy blue bermudas and sandals, said many young Chinese support him.

There are also doubts about his art. Some have dismissed him for being more dissident than artist. As art critic Jed Perl wrote in The New Republic in February, Ai is "a man with a quick mind, indomitable energy, and no particular aptitude for art".

He said some items at the Ai Weiwei: According To What? show at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, such as namelists of students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, are "close to documentary".

Ai was Zen about such criticism.

"People can say I'm more of a rubbish collector than an artist. There's no problem," said Ai, who counts American artists Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns as well as French-American conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp as his influences.

Does he worry that his works, many of which are commentaries on current affairs, will be as fleeting as a tweet?

Not at all, he said.

Instead, he said his art is like infant formula: "It has a shelf life but once taken into the baby's body, the baby will grow. My artwork may wane and perish, but its effects will remain with the people who have seen it."

- hoaili@sph.com.sg

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Where: Michael Janssen Singapore, Gillman Barracks, 9 Lock Road, 02-2

When: Aug 23 to Oct 6, Tue to Sat, noon - 7pm, Sun, noon - 6pm

Admission: Free

Info: Call 6734-8948

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