PLAYBOY: Some of your art involves performance. Early pieces involved breaking or transforming ancient Chinese antiques. Were you expressing your anger at Chinese culture?
AI: For people from the West, that was quite a shocking act, but for me, it’s quite natural. It goes back to when I was a child and had to burn all my father’s books during the Cultural Revolution. Those books were so beautiful. I burned them all in front of him; we had to. Otherwise it would cost us our lives. I tore every page. Beautifully printed books, art books he brought back from Paris. Page by page. So I know how to destroy. Chairman Mao taught us, so I know.
PLAYBOY: You’ve created pieces in which you literally say “fuck you” to China—or at least to the Communist Party. In one you flip off Tiananmen Square with the Forbidden City looming in the background.
AI: Yes. That’s so terrible to them that I would do that.
PLAYBOY: Were you also saying fuck you to the government when you photographed your wife holding her dress up in Tiananmen Square?
AI: For the first few years after I came back to China from New York, I went with her to Tiananmen Square just to walk on the June 4 anniversary. There were so many undercover police, and I told her, “Let me take a photo of you.” We did the Marilyn Monroe pose, just lifting her skirt like that.
PLAYBOY: More recently you went on a new antigovernment attack, this time in another medium: rock and roll. Have you always been an aspiring rock star?
AI: I’ve never sung a song in my life except the songs forced on us during the Cultural Revolution. I went to the Elton John concert and was very much inspired by his voice as a kind of star penetrating the darkness of the sky. I decided it doesn’t matter that I cannot sing. I am 55 years old, and maybe I’ll be the oldest person to start in rock and roll. I made nine songs. They are about the current condition in China. One is about my confrontation with the police during the earthquake research on the dead students. Another is about Chen Guangcheng and the Great Firewall.
PLAYBOY: Why did you choose heavy metal?
AI: I love metal music. It’s as powerful as nature. It’s poetry within a storm.
PLAYBOY: Do you use your art to publicize events like the earthquake or persecution of dissidents, or is it an expression of your frustration and anger?
AI: When there’s an extremely difficult situation, I think it’s a unique opportunity for me to make some art. Something extreme gives me a strong reason to react to it, to respond to the situation. So if they do something extreme, then I’m sure I’m going to come up with something.
PLAYBOY: Students were murdered and dissenters brutally crushed when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989. That must have reinforced the message that you don’t speak out.
AI: Yes. A few hundred thousand people were there. My father was there.
PLAYBOY: In a wheelchair, we read.
AI: Yes, and also my mom with steamed dumplings she brought to the students.
PLAYBOY: What was your reaction to the protests as you watched them from New York?
AI: There was a moment of great excitement. Dan Rather and all those people saw this moment, and we watched and were all very excited. It’s so unbelievable, the whole thing.
PLAYBOY: Were you in touch with your family during that time?
AI: Yeah, I talked with them. I could hear the helicopters flying above them. At the beginning they were excited. Then they felt shocked. Of course everybody was shattered by such a brutal reaction.
PLAYBOY: What’s the legacy of the demonstrations? Did they change China?
AI: Maybe most young students don’t even know it happened.
PLAYBOY: In Beijing we tried searching the internet for the words June 4, and information about the protest and crackdown appears to be blocked. Do you think the government doesn’t want people to know about the protests because of the massacre it perpetrated or because it doesn’t want people to know it’s possible to organize?
AI: Both. First, government officials don’t want people to know they can unite and have such powerful expression. Also, they don’t want people to know they crushed the masses with tanks. It’s why some people in this country still don’t know they arrested me. Many people don’t know.
PLAYBOY: How did your April 2011 arrest unfold?
AI: They took me from the airport. A black hood was put over me and they took me to a security detention center. I do not know where. We have tried to find out, but I still don’t know. The first question I asked when they started to talk to me was “Can I have a lawyer?” They said no. I said, “Can I make a phone call to my family?” They said no.
PLAYBOY: Were you worried about your family? Your son was two at the time.
AI: I blamed myself. I thought, Why did I put myself in this position, to deal with a government that has no respect at all for human rights, human dignity or even common sense? So many people warned me, and I knew my condition was quite fragile. They told me I would be sentenced for a very long time. They told me quite clearly, “When you leave jail your son will probably be 14, 15 and will never recognize you. And your mom may be passed away already.” I was very sad to think about that.
PLAYBOY: When you became a father, did you think differently about your political activism? If you remained imprisoned, your son would grow up without a father.
AI: I didn’t think about that until I was arrested. When I was arrested, when they told me I could not make any phone calls for at least half a year, I felt very sorry.
PLAYBOY: How else has being a father changed you?
AI: You have someone who very much depends on you. And for another 30 years, you could be some kind of influence on this child. You discover how the human species doesn’t have to learn, that something is already there, and how it struggles to grow. It’s kind of a miracle to see. Quite gradually it has to build up a kind of logical way of behaving, how to deal with life, which is sad in some ways. But yes, I felt very sorry about him when I was arrested and could not even call.
PLAYBOY: What were the conditions of your imprisonment?
AI: Two guards stood over me every minute. It’s a tough situation. I think it was a kind of psychological warfare. You are watched every moment, even while you sleep, and when you sleep your hands have to be outside the blanket. You cannot turn.
PLAYBOY: Why would they care how you slept?
AI: I think it’s a punishment.
PLAYBOY: How do they prevent you from turning?
AI: If you turn, they order you. You have to sleep like this, like a cross. [holds his arms out] The camera has to see your arms. You don’t know how to respond to this kind of degradation.
PLAYBOY: Could you exercise?
AI: No, no. You can’t move near the door.
PLAYBOY: Did you become depressed?
AI: I think I was more than depressed. You’re alert because the situation is so unknown. You don’t know their intentions. And you don’t know what the future is.
PLAYBOY: Could you write or draw?
AI: I could not do anything. When I was sitting, I had to sit in one position, like this. [sits erect with hands on thighs] Before you make any move, you must report it to a soldier. If you need to scratch your head, you must ask. I must ask if I want to go to the table to have a sip of water.
PLAYBOY: Did they bring meals to your cell, or did you eat in a communal area?
AI: They brought the meals to me. The meal would never come with chopsticks. I had one plastic spoon.
PLAYBOY: Did they prohibit chopsticks because they could be a weapon? Were they worried you might try to harm yourself?
AI: Yes. In my morning food there was always an egg. The egg had no shell. After a while I realized there was a little bit missing from the egg. Why was there always like a little mouse bite missing from the egg? When we became familiar, I asked a guard about this. He said, “We leave a sample of every dish you get in a box.” Later, if something happened to me, they could examine it in the laboratory. A doctor came three times a day. Sometimes seven times a day.
PLAYBOY: Did you become hopeless?
AI: I felt I would never be released.
PLAYBOY: Were you ever officially charged?
AI: They announced different crimes—taxes, violation of exchange of foreign currency to Chinese money. Just excuses. I think they wanted to get the people thinking badly of me. They charged me with having a double marriage, which I never had. I have a son with a girlfriend, but we were never married. They charged me with obscenity for putting nude photos on the internet.