Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

A Thousand Words For Ai Wei Wei

Jonathan Goodman provides regular coverage of art events in the People’s Republic to artcritical magazine. We are especially grateful to him, therefore, for sharing both his insight and passion on the Ai Wei Wei issue in view of the possible repercussions this might entail for him, as a writer, as he describes in his statement.

Ai Wei Wei, Study of Perspective - Tiananmen Square, 1995-2003.   Gelatin silver print, 15-5/16 x 23-1/4.  © 2011 Ai Weiwei
Ai Wei Wei, Study of Perspective - Tiananmen Square, 1995-2003.Gelatin silver print, 15-5/16 x 23-1/4. © 2011 Ai Weiwei

More than a couple of Chinese art-world colleagues warned me off writing about the plight of Ai Wei Wei, even in an American publication. At first I listened, but then felt pressure to speak out in defense of him because his fate sends a message to Chinese artists—indeed, all artists—who are courageous enough to stand up to a repressive government. Ai Wei Wei, who spent a number of years in America and, most likely, saw there the diversity of social expression and political activity while living in New York’s Lower East Side, is now detained incommunicado somewhere in China’s prison system. Although I have heard he is being charged for economic crimes, the truth is that he has had the audacity to challenge the Communist elite, who don’t take lightly his willingness to expose their faults.

Ai Wei Wei’s career has taken off in the West during the last five years; his recent installation of handmade and –painted seeds was a great success at the Tate Modern in London. The artist has used his good fortune to tell the truth to those in power, but things have not gone well for him, to say the least: recently, he was beaten up by thugs while speaking in a provincial Chinese city and had to be operated on in Germany. Now no one knows his fate, which operates as a warning to those attempting any criticism of a single-party system that has refused to reveal its oppressive excesses, which include the ten-year madness of the Cultural Revolution. As an artist friend here said, “We will not be hearing from him for a long time.” The artistic community is of course upset, but little if any dissent is issuing from Beijing; people are afraid that they too will be picked up simply for telling the truth.

Huang Yong Ping, Leviathanation, 2011. Installation of fiberglass, stuffed animals, train, 47 x 210 x 34 m.  Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing.
Huang Yong Ping, Leviathanation, 2011. Installation of fiberglass, stuffed animals, train,47 x 210 x 34 m. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing.

I have spent a fair amount of time in China—five visits, three of which have been longer than two months—and I can say that the personal freedom of the intelligentsia is equivalent on some level to that of its Western counterpart. But there is no indication of an equal political expressiveness here, where artistic work tends toward the allegorical, in the hope that social criticism will be understood as generally human, as opposed to specifically Chinese. That works up to a point, after which the critique sadly fails, in part because the forced circumstances that engendered the art are precisely those enabled by a one-party system. In a gallery show that is now up, the (Paris-based) artist exile Huang Yong Ping is showing Leviathanation, a huge work incorporating an official railroad car with the equally outsize head of a fish. The word Leviathan can mean a sea monster in bibllcal use, but it also denotes an autocratic state. For me at least, the message is clear; however, its interpretation is never referred to in so exact a sense in Beijing. It amazes me that so transparent a visual statement is not reacted to simply because it involves a metaphor—in fact, a fish’s head. But then the hard left has never been known for the greatness of its imagination—or for its kindness toward the imaginative.

Much of contemporary art pursues the ideal of democritization, which is a complex reality in the realm of culture. It is also true that democracy is sorely needed here in China—on the more primary level of individual political expression. The art world remains worried; one curator I know would like to act but feels that she would potentially undermine her own freedom in light of the Communists’ vindictiveness. It is a sad and indeed a tired story; but it is one that is being challenged by brave individuals. I learned about Ai Wei Wei’s troubles through word of mouth and from contacts in the West. I hear that there is an attempt to put out a million-signature petition demanding his freedom. But China has not known political freedom for generations, if at all.  Facebook cannot be accessed. Very few artists have brought up the situation in my presence. Self-censorship is the worst kind of repression because it is instigated from within—usually in reaction to an external force. It would be easy to judge those who do not bring up the subject of Ai Wei Wei, but as I see it, the situation is tragic for the intellectuals here in Beijing. If they talk up, they are bound themselves to go to jail. If they remain quiet, they allow a great wrong to go unchallenged. Either choice is a kind of death.

As a result, a true opposition can be developed only outside China, where there are precedents for political action. The million-signature petition must carry forward, as well as other forms of social pressure. One hopes even for artistic protest, although whether individual outrage will ever reach those responsible for current machinations here is, frankly, to be doubted. The one comment I have heard more than once in Beijing about Ai Wei Wei has to do with his status as an artist. Why indeed is the government beating down an artist? He is a single voice, many understand. But above and beyond his existence as an artist of interest and note is his allegiance to maintaining public integrity—something that the Chinese government very much fears. His suffering, which will be considerable, is a lesson to us all—even in American democracy, increasingly a state controlled by huge corporations. The lessons are hard learned, but not beyond hope. Every time someone signs in favor of Ai Wei Wei’s freedom, he is signing in favor of his own deliverance. Now, all over the world, we need a language that will do justice to the experience of psychic and actual imprisonment. If an artist alone can challenge the Chinese Leviathan, then it is up to us in the West to support him. In fact, his defense surely becomes our own.