The artist, my daughter and I walk into a neighboring room that I didn't see on my last visit - a gallery space with a high ceiling punctuated by grand skylights. In it are some works in progress for his solo show in Washington DC, which opens in six months. In one corner are several baskets of porcelain river crabs in different shapes and glazes. The Chinese word for "river crab", hexie, sounds very similar to the word for harmony, a government catchphrase often used as an excuse for censorship. Ai picks up a couple of crabs, passing one to me and one to Cora, who is elated to be in an environment full of art and devoid of "do not touch" signs.
In another part of the room is a sculpture created from mangled steel rebar that was exposed when concrete buildings collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake. Some suspect that it was Ai's campaign to name the children killed in collapsed schools that led to his imprisonment. Evidently uneasy about this sculpture, the artist stares at it. "It has no title yet," he announces. "Maybe this political thing leads me nowhere. It is so much frustration. It ruins my family's life. Maybe I have made my point," he says as we walk away from the rusty, minimal metal rods. [...]
Lu Qing enters the room, accompanied by an ancient, overweight cocker spaniel wearing a T-shirt. Lunch is ready. Would we like to join the staff? Ai, Lu, my daughter and I walk across the courtyard, through the computer-filled office, and into a plain staff room where over a dozen people are helping themselves to chicken, cabbage and rice. Chinese American college kids and a few pasty Europeans mix with mainland Chinese. We load our bowls, then find seats. "It is very difficult to change, even if you want to," says Ai as he takes his first mouthful. "I lost about thirty pounds when I was in jail. I have gained back every pound. Every day I criticize the government, I realize, come on, you cannot even lose weight."
The camaraderie around the lunch table is palpable. Ai sees his studio as akin to a class in which he is the instructor. "I tell people to do this and that, but I mostly like to intrigue them to be themselves, find out what to do and make an effort." When Ai outsources the fabrication of artworks to potters, carpenters, stoneworkers, metal casters, cameramen, editors and the like, the process of delegation can be delicate. The craftspeople know the nature of the material better than he does. "They have their own sensitivities about beauty and you cannot ignore what already exists in their mind," he says. "So my role is to guide, to direct."
Sarah Thornton will be speaking with Isaac Julien at the Bookshop on 13 October. Book tickets here.