Ai Weiwei, Chinese Artist & Activist, in Custody

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An Artist Takes Role of China”™s Conscience
by Holland Cotter
The New York Times
April 5, 2011

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who disappeared into police custody in Beijing after he was detained on Sunday while trying to board a flight for Hong Kong, is a fully 21st-century figure, global-minded, media-savvy, widely networked. He is also the embodiment of a cultural type, largely unfamiliar to the West, that dates far back into China”™s ancient past.

In a 30-year career he has combined, often at calculated personal risk, both aspects of his persona to create a role as an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, delivering his most stinging rebukes from within China itself. In light of his detainment, however, his ability to sustain this role, in China at least, would seem to be in serious doubt.

From a Western perspective, Mr. Ai”™s career fits a familiar profile. We tend to like our contemporary Chinese artists to come across as aesthetic tradition-busters. (This is one reason that Pop-style Mao paintings by the likes of Wang Guangyi remain big-selling auction items.) In this regard Mr. Ai has not disappointed. In the 1990s he painted Coca-Cola logos on ancient Chinese pots, broke up classical Chinese furniture and photographed himself making a single-digit rude gesture in front of the White House, the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square.

But gradually such Duchampian moves have given way to large-scale, socially critical projects. For a conceptual piece called “Fairytale” at the 2007 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, he placed 1,001 antique Chinese chairs, available for use, throughout the exhibition. He built an outdoor structure from 1,001 doors salvaged from Ming and Qing houses that had been eliminated by rampant development in Chinese cities. Through the Internet he recruited 1,001 Chinese citizen-volunteers to come to Kassel to live for the duration of the show.

In short, he brought a sense of China that was at once inviting, puzzling and pathetic. The chairs were nice to sit in. It was hard to know what to make of the mini-army of temporary residents, who seemed equally uncertain of why they were there. The structure built from old doors finally just collapsed. Over all, “Fairytale” was not a winning picture of his homeland.

Politically, he was coming to be known to the Chinese authorities as a loose cannon with a suspect history: a late-1970s free-speech agitator, later a member of renegade art movements, and a full-time resident of New York from 1981 to 1993. But as an international celebrity he was still a feather in China”™s cap at a time when the country was making an all-out effort to become a major cultural presence prior to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

With this in mind the Chinese government asked Mr. Ai to collaborate with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design for the Olympic stadium, known the Bird”™s Nest. He did so. The result was a triumph.

Then something startling happened: He denounced the Olympics as a feel-good whitewash on China”™s repressive, market-hungry government. And after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, which killed thousands of children who were crushed when their shoddily built schools collapsed, he became an intrepid antiestablishment activist.

As China”™s official news channels broadcast upbeat videos of earthquake rescue operations, Mr. Ai was in Sichuan making his own films of the destruction, talking with distraught parents of dead or missing children and using his widely read daily blog to accuse the Sichuan officials of financial corruption that resulted in structurally faulty schools. His accusations of a cover-up extended to the highest levels in Beijing.

To anyone familiar with China”™s hardball official politics, Mr. Ai”™s aggressive words sounded suicidally aggressive and the silence from the government in Beijing was perplexing. But at this juncture, both parties were almost ceremonially enacting ancient roles. In Chinese culture, going back to Confucius, there has been a tradition of individual scholars and intellectuals denouncing rulers for wrongdoing that was bringing disharmony to society, and particularly if that wrongdoing was injurious to innocence.

Examples of such face-offs recur in traditional literature and painting. And often, but not always, the self-sacrificing honesty of the accuser has rendered him immune to retaliation.

Even in his most antic mode, Mr. Ai has consciously assumed the artist”™s natural position as public intellectual in China. It was a position he inherited. He is the son of one of China”™s outstanding modern poets and thinkers, one who, like many intellectuals in the 1950s, was labeled “an enemy of the people” and banished, along with his family, to the remote regions and years of menial labor.

Mr. Ai, born in 1957, remembers that time and its hardships. He also remembers his father”™s unshattered utopian ideals. His own political coming of age coincided with the family”™s return to Beijing in 1976, at a period of relative liberalism, putting him in touch wit a nascent democracy movement. When the ideological climate grew icy again, he left for the United States. He had no American career to speak of “” New York wasn”™t looking at contemporary Chinese art in the 1980s “” but he circulated widely in the downtown art world and learned a lot.

He took this knowledge with him when he returned to China, after his father fell ill in 1993. In Beijing he helped spearhead new, radical, often conceptually based underground movements. And with his big-picture view of international art and his fluent English, he was a primary spokesman for new Chinese art and a link between Chinese artists and a developing audience of Western collectors, curators and critics.

Through all of this, his own work, which came to include sculpture, photography, performance and architecture, fit no definable mode. It was his personal presence as impresario, entrepreneur and social commentator that gave it unity. And increasingly it was the critical commentary that stood out, became a form of performance art, carefully choreographed in all its moves. And those moves were toward ever greater risk.

His attacks on political authority grew sharper, more persistent, more amplified. The noble Confucian model of the morally grounded intellectual speaking truth to power in a single dramatic confrontation was called on so often as to become, seemingly by intention, an unnoble and relentless insistence. And as a result, whatever immunity from reprisal he might once have enjoyed was soon gone.

In 2009 he was beaten by the police and underwent surgery for cerebral hemorrhage. The same year, his blog was shut down, presumably by the government. Selections from it have just been published by MIT Press as a book, “Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009,” edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy. In 2010 he was put under house arrest in Beijing while a newly built studio in Shanghai was razed by city authorities on the pretext of having been built without proper permits.

Even though, like many other intellectuals and activists, he was forbidden to leave China as of December, he announced plans to establish a studio in Berlin. But recently, after popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began in February, the Chinese authorities have initiated a virulent crackdown. Mr. Ai is far from alone in feeling the force of it, but it is hard to think of many others who have gone so far out of their way to attract it.

And he will continue to, even “” or perhaps especially “” if he remains in detention. This May an outdoor sculptural piece by Mr. Ai, called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” will be installed at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. To most New Yorkers the dozen large cast-bronze animal heads, corresponding to the signs Chinese zodiac, will be simply winsome, or maybe a little freaky. To anyone knowing the historical reference behind these images, they”™ll be explosive.

They are based on a set of similar sculptures that once adorned a fountain at the 18th-century imperial Summer Palace called Yuanming Yuan near Beijing. In 1860 French and British soldiers occupying China torched the palace and carried off the zodiac heads, an act which to this day evokes popular outrage in China as an example of colonialist humiliation and of everything hateful about the West.

Getting all the heads back “” only some have been returned “” has become an impassioned nationalist mission. When two were offered for sale at Christie”™s in 2009 as part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate, there were protest demonstrations “” almost never allowed in any other context “” across China.

What can the Chinese feel about Mr. Ai symbolically plunking the whole set down in New York “” and, later this year, in London and Los Angeles? He has symbolically reconstituted an iconic piece of China”™s patrimony; but he has done so, perversely, on enemy turf. Yet in the end only one political reality matters: If China prevents Mr. Ai from appearing as scheduled at the sculpture”™s debut here on May 2, much of the rest of the world will be united in demanding to know why.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 7, 2011

A critic”™s notebook article on Wednesday about Ai Weiwei, the high-profile Chinese artist and government critic who disappeared into police custody in Beijing on Sunday, misstated his legal status. He was taken into custody by the authorities; he was not formally arrested.