"If you don't speak out, if you don't clear your mind, then who are you?" — Ai Weiwei
It's impossible not to be angry or upset about the April 3rd arrest of Ai Weiwei and the subsequent charge of "economic crimes" brought against the artist by Chinese officials. While hoping for his immediate and safe release, you should definitely check out Frontline's great piece on the artist, Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?. Produced by freelance journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman, who followed Ai for several years, the fascinating 18-minute piece features interviews with "China's first global art star" as well as brief conversations with his mother, art assistants, friends, journalists, and fellow artists.
Considered to be the voice of the common man in China and often referred to as "Ai Shen" which translates to "Holy Ai" or "Ai God," according to The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, Ai is the son of the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who along with Weiwei and the rest of their family, was exiled to western China during the Cultural Revolution and forced to do menial labor. Ai Weiwei is not only a world renowned sculptor, photographer, and installation artist, but also an outspoken political activist who frequently, boldly, and peacefully speaks (and blogs and Tweets) about local corruption and goverment abuse. Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei? traces the 53-year-old artist's career back to 2008 when he was selected to design the Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics hosted in Beijing. While working on the stadium, Ai became disenchanted with the project, realizing that the Olympics were presented to him as "an act of integration and openness" but were actually a "celebration of the leadership of the Communist Party" and ulitmately "a fake smile that China was putting on for the rest of the world." Ai quietly protested the event by not attending the opening ceremony.
Klayman also discusses Ai's response to the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake and his outrage at "the lack of government responsibility." Ai organized a citizens investigation consisting of volunteers of all ages who went about hounding government officials to collect the names the government refused to release of the thousands killed by the earthquake. In the summer of 2009, Ai was viciously beaten in his hotel room by police when he traveled to Sichuan to support a local earthquake activist who was on trial. A month later, while setting up a solo exhibition in Munich, Ai was hospitalized for bleeding of the brain - most likely a result of the brutal beating he received in Sichuan. The defiant picture above was Tweeted by Ai while he was being treated in the hospital. His Munich exhibition included a monumental and moving tribute to the vicitims of the Sichuan earthquake — an installation made entirely of children's backpacks, similar to the one's belonging to the school children who were killed when their poorly built schoolhouse collapsed on them during the quake. The backpacks spell out in Chinese characters the heartbreaking words spoken by the mother of one of the young earthquake victims - "She lived happily on this earth for seven years."
In April 2010, Ai returned to Sichuan with Klayman, Osnos, a videographer, and others to confront the police who beat him. After a long, fruitless day of filing an official complaint, fans greeted the artist as he and the group were having dinner - before the police came along to try to bully Ai, only to be outwitted by the aritst. As fellow artist Chen Danqing states, "Weiwei has a little hooligan inside him, so he knows how to deal with other hooligans. Because the Communist Party are just hooligans, really, you have to turn yourself into a hooligan as well." Klayman's film also shows footage of Ai attending the opening of his current installation at the Tate Modern in London where his 100 million hand-painted, porcelain sunflower seeds are on view as well as the Chinese government bulldozing the artist's newly built Shanghai studio back in January of this year. The artist responded by recording the demolition and showing it online, declaring it one of his most powerful artworks to date.
While Chinese officials may think they are making an example of Ai by imprisoning the high profile artist/activist, they are really just confirming to the west the crookedness and injustice of their system. When asked by Klayman if he finds himself fearless, the soft-spoken, teddybear-like artist winces and humbly states it may seem "I act more brave because I know the danger is really there. If you don't act, the dangers become stronger." Let's all hope for the quick, safe release of the brave, inspiring, and amazing Ai Weiwei. Watch Frontline's Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei? at pbs.org. Read Creative Time's response to Ai's detention at creativetime.org and read about the Tate Modern's protest at guardian.co.uk.