Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, New York City,  June 13, 1992 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

From Ai Weiwei‘s extraordinary memoir – 1000 Years of Joys And Sorrows  (the title is from one of his father’s poems – “Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows/Not a trace can be found“) – memories of Allen Ginsberg:

“In late December 1984, at a poetry gathering in St Mark’s Church, a heavily bearded Allen Ginsberg, dressed in a dark suit, read his poetry on the rostrum while a crowd listened keenly below. He was talking about the trip he had just made to China– “I learned that the Great Leap Forward caused millions of people to starve, that the Anti-Rightist Campaign against bourgeois “Stinkers” sent revolutionary poets to shovel shit in Xinjiang Province a decade before the Cultural Revolution drove countless millions of readers to cold huts and starvation in the countryside Northwest“. [ – from “Reading Bai Juyi” – Part V – China Bronchitis”]

Ginsberg was a smoldering charcoal fire, warmly drawing people to him on this winter night. When he finished I went up and told him that I was the son of the revolutionary poet he had just been talking about. His eyes grew big as he listened. Gazing at me intently, he said that his warmest memory in China was the hug that my father had given him. We left the church and went to the Kiev, a Ukranian diner nearby. When I told him I didn’t drink coffee, he ordered an egg cream for me instead.

Then in his late fifties, Allen lived on East Twelfth Street, in an apartment left to him by his mother [Editorial note – no, the twelfth street apartment was a rented apartment, that he found on his own]. The shelves sagged under the weight of his books, and in places the floor had been worn away. In the corner of his bedroom stood a little Buddhist altar table, above which hung a sacred word handwritten by his guru . All of a sudden, he turned on me and intoned a long and protracted “Aaaahh”, his mantra of enlightenment.

Allen Ginsberg, Boulder Colorado, June 1994. photo c. Steve Miles.  AH Mantra Calligraphy (for Allen Ginsberg), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. ca 1980

Allen was never without his little Olympus camera, with which he would quietly record the passing moments in his day. No matter how dim the light, he never used a flash, and though the pictures could be grainy, there was a richness to their shadows. The back lot below his kitchen window was a subject he never tired of photographing.

On Christmas night in 1987, Allen recited his long poem, “White Shroud” in my basement. He had written it for his mother. A radical and an activist, she had introduced Allen to politics at an early age, and at home she had often walked around in the nude. Allen reminded me of my father, for both were boys who never grew up. To them, the world was what found sanctuary in their consciousness, and when they died, that piece of the world perished too.

One day a woman with graying hair rushed over to greet Allen  as we stood chatting outside Cooper Union. He introduced her as Susan Sontag, and me as a Chinese philosopher – despite the fact that I was clutching a sketched and was on my way to draw for tourists in Greenwich Village.

AiWeiwei,  New York City, (corner of West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue), June 3, 1989 -photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Allen was not always so flattering. Once after examining a portfolio of mine, he said to me, “I really don’t know who would be interested in a Chinese artist”. I still remember this as though it were yesterday. I never thought of Allen as an American poet – even if his Americanness was utterly authentic – for others had an outlook that was entirely American, and Allen had a global perspective. The United States like to think of itself as a melting pot, but it’s more like a vat of sulfuric acid, dissolving variety without a qualm

Another time, however, Allen listened raptly as I shared stories about my father and our life in exile. He looked at me through his thick lenses and said, “You need to write down your memories. The first thought is the best thought“. I didn’t understand what he said, for I felt no attachment to my memories. My memories didn’t belong to me; in the episodes that I recalled most clearly , my existence was nullified, and writing them down would be like tossing a handful of sand into the wind. It would be decades before I could give substance to those memories.

Once, in Allen’s apartment, I saw a young man sound asleep on his bed. At this point in his life he could not give, Allen told me ruefully, he could only take. But to my mind, Allen was always young, always giving of himself, selflessly When I left New York, I didn’t say goodbye to him. Later I learned that in his final days, when he was gravely ill, he had tried to get hold of my telephone number.”

Ai Weiwei and Allen’s mutual respect and friendship. For previous postings on Weiwei on The Allen Ginsberg Project – see here, here, here, here, here – and here

1000 Years of Joys And Sorrows was indeed highly-anticipated. Weiwei’s life has been – and continues to be – an extraordinary one – and the book in no way disappoints, quite the reverse! –

Michiko Kakutani, reviewer for The New York Times:

“Like the author’s brilliant installations and films, the book is an impassioned testament to the enduring powers of art—to challenge the state and the status quo, to affirm essential and inconvenient truths, and to assert the indispensable agency of imagination and will in the face of political repression.”

“With uncommon humanity, humbling scholarship, and poignant intimacy”,  writes  Andrew Solomon, “Ai Weiwei recounts a life of courage, argument, defeat, and triumph. His is one of the great voices of our time.”

Ai Weiwei has been (and continues to be) on a publicity-tour for the book, giving informative and illuminating interviews. (He was in America last month). We’ve already noted this – there’s also this – and this – and this (from Canadian radio)

Coincidental with the publication of  1000 Years of Joy and Sorrow, is a new edition in English translation of his father’s poems, masterfully translated by Robert Dorsett, “a timeless, visionary collection”, to which he’s penned a foreword.

We remain deeply in awe of Weiwei’s tenacity, bravery, inventiveness, and painfully-learned wisdom.
Read his book.

One comment

  1. I’m presently reading his fine book! It’s a humbling read during pandemic times and refreshes my own creatives thoughts while working in my studio. A fitting time to have knowledgeable artists writing for the masses. Honestly, Mr. Weiwei’s works are sophisticated beyond most reader’s level, but nevertheless this book is very important in 2021 and seeing into our future.

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