In the 1930s, it was the writer Lu Xun who embodied China's conscience. Today, it is Ai Weiwei. For nearly twenty years, the artist has been an icon of his country. A turbulent, disturbing force, he was imprisoned for ninety days by the Beijing regime in 2011, after protesting against the corruption of the Party officials in Sichuan: the place where several thousand children died in a devastating earthquake. The consequent scars to his soul are still raw. But despite the "danger" of not seeing his mother, who has remained alone in Beijing, the internal rage that devours him, eloquent of his total disgust with power in general, is a driving force that sustains him more than ever. Ai Weiwei loves to set himself challenges. "Not as an artist. In fact, I don't think of myself as one. I could just as well be a hairdresser or cook. Besides, I don't need much to live. However, I have a constant need to learn something new. And to ensure that life is bearable." When asked if he is afraid of excessive media coverage, he replies that at the age of 60, he works above all for himself and his 8-year-old son, whom he seeks to "spare" – as his own father spared him. He was the extraordinary poet Ai Qing (1910-1996), whose spectre still haunts the artist's memory. A Francophone who had spent the inter-year wars in Marseille, he was accused of being a "right-wing element" by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, and deported with his family for over a decade to the hostile desert of Chinese Turkestan. Hence Ai Weiwei's obsession with "transmitting" knowledge and experience – in a word, "culture" – as a self-appointed task to build "a bridge between the past and the future".
A wandering artist
With his awareness of the Terror of History and consideration for the humans in every generation, there is something of Confucius in this man. In Venice, he worked hard to promote his latest film, "Human Flow", which deals with migrants. He has always had a sympathetic reaction to the ceaseless displacements at the heart of this documentary. It was released within a few days of the opening of his exhibition, "D’ailleurs c’est toujours les autres" (It's always other people…), at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (mcb-a) in Lausanne. It's worth reiterating here that those who still see Ai Weiwei as a blustering poser are wrong. The artist is a refined man of letters. With a taste for travel and "a keen interest in the past", reading Neruda and Hikmet are just as vital to him as meeting the refugees of Dadaab in Kenya, or criss-crossing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the battlefields of Iraq or the sensitive zones separating Syria from Turkey. His freedom lies in the discomfort of a deliberately-chosen nomadic existence, even if these last few months have seen him shuttling increasingly between New York and Berlin. The artist has connections in the Big Apple. He lived there by his wits during the Reagan years, alongside the musician Tan Dun. It was in New York, too, that he discovered the work of conceptual artists and the last great names of the Beat Generation. Meanwhile, Berlin was an accident: a happy one, but an accident all the same. At the height of his crisis with the Chinese authorities, he says, "Paris did not welcome me as a guest. But the Germans did. I respect them enormously for their decision."
A critic of power and subversion
While Ai Weiwei admits that he "needs hope", he has no illusions about any change in the Beijing regime. He readily compares Aung San Suu Kyi's indifference to the tragedy of the Rohingya with the coldness of Xi Jinping and the rulers of his country towards his "lawyer friends still in prison to this day." China, he says, "is economically powerful, but nobody trusts it. And no creativity is recognised there either." His presence in the West is all the more understandable. And in these first days of autumn, he has decided to spend a few days in Switzerland. Lausanne provides Ai Weiwei with a chance, "over ten years after [their] first meeting around a project that began in Berne", to collaborate with Bernard Fibicher, the director of the mcb-a, on the installation of his own works. What is in store for visitors: 40 pieces produced between 1995 and the present day, illustrating his rich and varied output. He subverts ancestral materials, themes and techniques in a playful and iconoclastic way to express his criticism of any "routinisation" of our political system and our ways of acting and thinking. It starts off with "Tyre", a piece in marble, evoking the rubber rings or inner tubes to which shipwrecked migrants cling. "Study of Perspective" shows a celebrated series of photographs where the artist raises his middle finger at landmarks of power or culture. Through this half-obscene, half-comical gesture, he expresses his rejection of icons as established values, and places the individual at the centre of the world by means of the selfie. This criticism of power is a constant, as we are reminded by "The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca": a gigantic wallpaper staging the attributes of power – surveillance cameras, etc. The artist subtly reinvents an early ancestral genre known as hua niao, or bird-and-flower painting. Far from being naïve, this style enabled numerous scholars of imperial China to contest the power of the capital through subversive means. But more innovative is the contextual displacement Ai Weiwei achieves by transposing archaeological objects into the art world, as with "Remains" (2014): porcelain replicas based on human remains brought back covertly from the laogai, concentration camps proliferating in the far western regions of China. The artist has contrived to place them in the midst of the Merovingian tombs in the Palais de Rumine. An inventor of genius, Ai Weiwei is now a classic: a man who walks through walls, whose work we can now be sure will survive him.