Ai Weiwei’s ‘Zodiac’ Is a Mystical Memory Tour

As the Year of the Dragon dawns, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has released “Zodiac,” a “graphic memoir” of scenes from his career — both real (hanging with Allen Ginsberg, the O.G. of Beat poets, in 1980s Greenwich Village) and imagined (debating Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader). Each chapter frames the artist’s take on traditional beliefs about the characteristics humans share with the 12 animals of the Chinese lunar calendar. Gianluca Costantini’s intricate line drawings pair with Elettra Stamboulis’s comic-bubble text to help expand Ai’s lifelong campaign for free expression to a new medium for a new generation. Ai spoke with Jonathan Landreth about parents and parenting, punk rock and the passage of time, all via video chat last week from Berlin.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A zodiac cycle ago, in 2012, you were just out of jail and tired of Beijing trying to silence you. “Twitter is my city,” you told me. Now you live in Berlin, Cambridge and Portugal. Where’s your city today?

Twitter was my city because it was the only place for my expression at that time. Since 2015, when I left China, conditions have changed. I was under such pressure in China. Suddenly, I came to the so-called free world and Twitter was not so important. It was just one of the tools.

I consider nowhere home. Not China and not outside China. It’s strange. I just came back from New York. I consider none of these cities home. Home means you close your eyes and imagine the street and recognize a few names you grew up with. None of these places have this.

In “Zodiac,” you teach your son, Ai Lao, the legend of the Jade Emperor creating the calendar. What did you learn by explaining time?

Some say time is only an illusion. The illusion can be painful, or it can be happy. Some live in the past, and some struggle in the present. Someone may have no future. It’s hard to explain what time is about. The new generation needs some kind of reference when we talk about time. I can talk about the years I lived in Xinjiang, or the time my father was dying so I moved back to China from New York. You really need events to illustrate time. My son will turn 15 soon, so his time will be in China, then Germany, then England. That’s how he’ll understand it.

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