Ai Weiwei: Rebel With a Cause

Liz Appleby


Few artists were featured in the media in 2011 as frequently as Ai Weiwei. His placement on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential figures came at the end of a year when he was taken into custody by the Chinese government for alleged economic crimes. Ai’s supporters believe these charges are a ruse, and the media have questioned their validity as well. As Andrew Stout of More Intelligent Life explains, the accusation of economic crimes is “a catch-all charge often used by Chinese officials to publicly discredit dissidents”.


Ai is famed for his role as cultural interpreter and was an adviser to Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron, for the Birds Nest, Beijing’s Olympic stadium. But in recent years, it is  his run-in with authorities that have attracted  the most press.


In April 2011, Ai was apprehended at Beijing airport on his way to Hong Kong. He was taken into custody for 81 days; little was known of his whereabouts and his disappearance sparked widespread international outcry. Since his release in June 2011, he has remained under constant surveillance at his Beijing studio and, under conditions of his release, was instructed to keep a low profile in the media and online. Last November, as they promised they would, Chinese officials handed him a bill of $2.4 million for unpaid taxes, with 15 days to pay it. His supporters began a huge online campaign to raise funds to appeal the charges. Thousands of donations later, Ai paid the bond.


In the same month, Ai’s assistant, artist Zhao Zhao, found himself at the center of a pornography investigation. Chinese authorities came across a photograph taken by Zhao in 2010 that featured Ai and four women naked. Zhao was subsequently accused of spreading pornography online. In an article by the Associated Press, Zhao said he believed it was part of the authorities' ongoing campaign against Ai. "…So far, their efforts have had no effect, such as the tax case, so they are trying this from other angles,” Ai’s supporters had their own response. They stripped off their clothes in protest, photographed themselves and posted the pictures online . Nudity, they declared, was not pornography.

A prolific tweeter and blogger since 2005, Ai has courted controversy, and used t online media to freely express his views on his homeland, the social and economic conditions people live in, the systems that oppress, and the freedoms and rights people do not have. 


Ai has experienced hardship firsthand. His Father Ai Qing, one of the Chinese Communist party’s most lauded modern poets, suffered persecution at the hands of the People’s Republic and was jailed and tortured as a leftist. Ai and his family spent years in exile until permitted to return to Beijing when he was 19.

In 2008, frustrated by the government’s refusal to release statistics from the Sichuan earthquake, Ai led his own investigation. Suspicious as to why schools collapsed and buildings close stood firm, Ai spoke out on his blog, and recruited a team of researchers and volunteers to carry out inquiries at the scene with families of the victims. Ai hoped to uncover and publicize the names of the schoolchildren who had died. He also wrote names of the dead on paper pinned to his studio wall, and on the birthdays of the dead, posted tributes on Twitter.


It is perhaps no coincidence that following Ai’s investigations, the government released its official figures of people killed in the disaster. As Ai’s posts grew increasingly hostile towards the government and officials handling the disaster, all blog entries were deleted. As expected, his blog was finally shut down altogether.


The quest to silence him grew stronger. When Ai attempted to testify for a fellow investigator, he was beaten and forcefully stopped from attending the trial. Ai documented the crude details of the encounter on Twitter, highlighting the behavior of the state towards one of its citizens, and laying down a very public challenge to the authorities.


As a result of the events, Ai produced an installation in Munich, dedicated to the young who lost their lives in the quake. A large sculpture of schoolchildren’s backpacks was arranged to display Chinese characters, which revealed a moving quote from the mother of a dead child: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years”.


It is his advocacy that has made Ai a conspicuous figure in the art world. Not limited to the physical, or the confines of the gallery walls, Ai’s work stretches the boundaries of what art is and what it does. Ai’s purpose for art reaches beyond the aesthetic, the commodity and the market, and is firmly rooted in real life, reminding us at times to look outside our own existence. His artistic expression is conversation, shared knowledge, ideals and beliefs. This transcends the superficiality of the art world, and  its brand artworks that sell for tens of millions to the super rich at auction houses. It shouts loudly of the true value of art and the artist—the attempt to communicate and connect with people.

In 2010, Ai showcased “Sunflower Seeds” at Tate Modern London (currently showing at Mary Boone Gallery in New York). One of his most comprehensive works to date, the vast expanse of the Tate’s Turbine Hall floor was covered with millions of porcelain seeds, individually hand-painted to resemble sunflower seeds. Workers in the city of Jingdezhen spent two years bringing Ai’s vision to life, and like much of Ai’s work for the gallery space, it can be interpreted on many levels. The differences in the tiny seeds highlighted the beauty in individuality, and collectively their huge mass suggested community, while the craft skills of those that created the work riled against a China of mass production and sameness.


It is consumerist China, the purveyor of cheap goods that Ai has spoken out against on many occasions. His outspokenness, however, has had its critics. His actions, framed within an artistic context in the West, are viewed differently in China, where some simply see him as causing a fuss and dismiss him as a troublemaker. In an article in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos wrote: “over the years, Ai and other artists butted heads over whether his form of activism was worthwhile or vain and counterproductive.”


But Ai’s actions were hardly  vain. Until he was detained himself, Ai used his position to highlight injustice towards others, and, until it was shut down, spoke on his blog of freedom of expression and universal values. Although his stature and global profile means he has attracted considerable media attention, Ai uses this to shift the focus from him and onto the cause— but for now, Ai Weiwei has become the cause. The tax charges are now under the authorities’ review, and in a recent article in The Guardian, Ai warned, ”If they can't resolve this issue very fairly and carefully, it will bring harm to this society's justice system." 


With Ai’s long-awaited documentary feature, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which debuted at Sundance this month, it is certain that whatever the outcome of the tax saga, Ai’s influence will be felt far beyond 2011.


Author Bio:

Liz Appleby is a freelance writer.

Additional Photos: Loz Pycock; HD Zimmerman: Flickr

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