Ai told the Daily Telegraph that the mayor of Shanghai had initially proposed the studio to him. "It's all very strange," he said. "This guy flew to Beijing twice to personally invite me to build the studio… Now they say they want to knock it down. The local officials say the word has come from above…." The artist also operates a studio in Beijing, which a recent New Yorker profile described as playing "a role in the cultural life of Beijing akin to that of Andy Warhol's factory."
Since embarking on a public investigation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, in which thousands of children died as a result of what some critics allege was shoddy engineering in schools and other buildings, Ai has been the subject of frequent attention from Chinese authorities. Last year, he underwent surgery to combat a cerebral hemorrhage that he said resulted from being beaten by Chinese police officials just weeks before. He used Twitter to send photos of himself in the hospital.
As Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker, "Ai has come to occupy a peculiar category of his own: a bankable global art star who runs the distinct risk of going to jail." While radical politics and claims of amorality have long been associated with cutting-edge art — think Rimbaud declaring, "I do not understand laws. I have no moral sense," or Veronese stating, "We painters claim the license that poets and madmen claim" — there are few actual precedents for artists risking criminal charges in the production of their art.
In the two years since the Sichuan earthquakes, Ai has carefully engaged in a tête-à-tête with the Chinese government, balancing activism and protest with risk of imprisonment, a strategy that has earned him major headlines, sales, and shows around the world. (Last month, he unveiled a sculpture in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall that features more than 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds.) His crab feast is the latest step in this delicate back and forth. According to CNN, "River Crab Fest" puns on a Chinese euphemism for government censorship.