Ambitious ... 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows touches on the inevitable contradictions of being an activist and an art superstar, but it is above all a story of inherited resilience, strength of character and self-determination.
[Ai Weiwei] is most eloquent when he stops pontificating on art and surrenders, almost despite himself, to the act of remembering. Ai writes evocatively of the nights spent in his detention cell ... In 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, Ai does not allow his own scraps to remain buried. To unearth them is an act of unburdening, an open letter to progeny, a suturing of past and present. It is the refusal to be a pawn — and the most potent assertion of a self.
This memoir is a remarkable book — and an important one. Vivid and direct prose ... 1000 Years is a breathtaking self-examination of a brave artist, written so that his own young son may one day understand Ai Weiwei's joys and sorrows.
Originally intended to be an accurate account that Ai Weiwei could pass along to his own son, the book stands as a tangible record and proof of his resistance to the efforts of the Chinese government to 'disappear' both him and his father. We simply become the beneficiaries of his documenting this remarkable story ... a historical account as well as a work of art ... A fascinating biography, it documents the history of modern-day China in which the son of a dissident could grow up to consult with the Chinese government on the 'Bird’s Nest' stadium constructed for the 2008 Olympics. And though the iconic work drew the world’s attention to Beijing, Ai continues to live abroad to ensure his own artistic freedom. What began as an account of two lives emerges as exquisite evidence of the invincibility of truth and creativity.
... billed as a story of father and son, and it is exactly that — though not in the way that contemporary Western readers might expect. There is little excavation of Ai’s emotional relationship with his father, and no oedipal psychodrama, thank God. Instead, the reader gets a clear-eyed account of two artists working against convention, buffeted by the whims of absurdist politics ... Much of the beginning of this book reads like a history. Much of the end, following the author’s growing artistic renown, reads more like a narrative retrospective than memoir. Even when the boy Ai is present, watching his exiled father shatter frozen turds with a shovel, his prose style is documentary. When occasional meditations on memory, freedom and individualism appear, they too are stated like fact ... Translated into even-toned, straightforward English by Allan Barr, this style echoes the artist’s practice of prolific documentation ... Sometimes, the Western reader in me did crave a pinch more vulnerability. There are few actual declarations of love in this book, little interpersonal drama (even Wang Fen, Ai Lao’s mother, is barely discussed beyond her role as mother), none of the confessional intimacy we have come to expect from memoir. Ai himself remains so unflappable in his convictions that his consistency can become almost banal ... I say this in admiration. If the memoir is sometimes boring, it is boring like a repeated image of Marilyn Monroe, or a can of Campbell’s soup, is boring. Young Ai, in the memoir’s spirited middle, found inspiration in Andy Warhol’s love of 'boring things,' and the idea of the 'ready-made' expressed by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. In the most illuminating moments of reflection, Ai confronts political repression — the ultimate, exhausting banality of censorship, ubiquitous surveillance and interminable interrogations — as a sort of 'ready-made' reality against which his artwork reacts: 'For me, inspiration comes from resistance,' he writes. 'Having a real — and powerful — adversary was my good fortune'.
Moving and passionate ... Sprinkled throughout the book are lovely black-and-white sketches and drawings by Ai Weiwei, as well as many of his father’s emotive poems ... Heart-rending yet exhilerating ... It’s simultaneously an informative political history of the last 100 years in China, an intimate portrait of familial bonds through the generations and a testament to the power of art.
Ai Weiwei writes sympathetically of his father’s youth, his birth in the waning days of the Qing dynasty, his artistic awakening in Paris, and his pursuit of a life of the mind, even if it meant a life of destitution and itinerancy ... The strands of his father’s life fold in on his own, the echoes of the past reverberating into the present ... Eager to escape the suffocating confines of Beijing, he gets approval in 1981 to study in the United States, landing in New York City and remaining there for 12 years. His writing about this time is some of the book’s most alive, an artist searching for himself ... 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows functions like a handbook for dissent. Ai is given to lofty pronouncements...but these can be excused. They’re presented as a matter of course: flat, inexorable. They’re hard-won ... Ai Weiwei’s memoir becomes another refusal, rejecting obliteration.
... beautifully translated ... Ai Qing’s literary career and life—which takes up the first third of the book—occurred at a time of remarkable change in China, and the sharp, unexpected shift from celebrated poet to public enemy underscores the tectonic plates inherent to an autocratic state. And in truth, as this memoir imparts—as our own present circumstances dictate—there is nothing that is settled and secure, and we have limited time before potentially calamitous events happen in our own lives. What will we do with the time given us? How will we make our mark? Who will we stand up for, and what risks are we willing to take to be true, and to be truly human? ... in the same way that he tackles large-scale artistic projects, Ai has sculpted an expansive and uncategorizable memoir that is entirely about exceptionally dangerous memories and people and creations that were meant to be forgotten ... When there are no definitions, boxes, rules, or evergreen processes, society and authorities are threatened to be sure, but what results is often reflective of how history and nature shift, fall dormant and re-animate. In many ways, Ai sees the world as the ultimate canvas, and everything on it a form of expression, though the artist doesn’t have an elevated role, any more than anyone else does ... feels like a multi-floor retrospective focused on artistic and political lives through tumultuous eras in 20th and 21st century China ... The curation is thorough but not all encompassing; both large in scale and minute in detail depending upon the projects, much like Ai’s works themselves. This open-endedness is entirely appropriate, because these stories—especially those of the millions of people suffering persecution anonymously throughout the world—will never be over ... After several hundred pages, one also feels that at its core, this is a love letter, to his father, ancestors and compatriots to be sure, but especially to and for his young son, Ai Lo.
If the book’s material is engrossing, its tone is strangely tepid. The richest passages come from childhood, and momentum slackens as we move from Ai’s apprenticeship as a young artist abroad, munching doughnuts by the bin fires of 1970s New York, to his life as a public figure in Nineties and Noughties China. Sometimes the text suffers from translationese ... The book’s later sections relay a remarkable series of public campaigns the artist led after he returned to China, as well as the gruelling detentions that make up the book’s climax. But much is missing: there is little mention of his personal life, and his descriptions of the art feel cursory. An account of taking 1,001 Chinese people to live temporarily in Germany for an artwork called Fairytale, comes and goes without a single anecdote. The passages about his wives — he married the first in America, separated, and remarried in China — are sparse and rare. In today’s China people can lose a lot through politically suspect connections: there may be other considerations at work here. What’s left is an artist’s veneration of his father, and his battle with the regime that has dominated both their lives. It’s a remarkable story. If I was Ai’s son, though, I’d still have a lot of questions.
Given the harrowing experiences that the artist and activist Ai Weiwei has endured over his sixty-four years, it is a bit miraculous to see him exude mordant humor and calm determination throughout his lucid new memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. Even in very dire circumstances, he seems able to engage—maybe even enjoy—one absurdity or another ... For an artist’s memoir, there is little discussion of actual artmaking, and only passing explanations of his rise ... Ai’s memoir, translated into English by Allan H. Barr, is, for its part, accessible and earnest ... Ai’s century-spanning story shows that even the most seemingly intractable situations eventually evolve.
The chapters that recount his detention (and his prior harassment by the police) are among the book’s most enthralling, leavened with a dark humour and a humane respect for his captors, both browbeaten police forced to pay their own expenses and peasant soldiers. Ai also uses the discussions he had with his interrogators to flesh out the thinking behind his art, which western readers might find an invaluable exegesis ... much better written than the average autobiography. Ai’s prose has a breezy poeticism to it, well rendered in Allan H Barr’s fluid translation. It presents a fascinating, if at times self-satisfied, portrait of a polymath who remains only partially understood in the West, and one who has a far greater faith in his fellow citizens than the government that continues to rule over them does.
Engrossing ... Ai creates a vivid portrait of two generations grappling with their place in the Chinese cultural and political landscape, and gives readers a glimpse of his approach to art and the creative process. Highly recommended for those interested in art, memoir, politics, and history.
An extravagantly rewarding hybrid: a combination history of modern China, biography of a dissident poet and memoir by his provocateur son ... A rousing but even-tempered call to action, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows also succeeds as something uncharacteristically modest for a work by Ai ... Charged but graceful.
Ai’s memoir is smattered with telling detail ... However, readers should not expect a grippingly vivid Wild Swans-style narrative. Often the tone is impersonal to the point of detachment. Characters, particularly of women, are two-dimensional. The narrative, which flits back and forth between the personal and the political, between his story and that of his father, between his many projects, past, present and future, is often hard to follow ... This memoir feels fragmentary. That is part of its point.
Ai Weiwei uses his father’s heartbreakingly difficult life as a point of departure to tell his own story ... Throughout, the author maintains a fluid, heartfelt narrative ... A beautiful and poignant memoir demonstrating perseverance and the power of art.