Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

The artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei disappeared into detention on 3 April and no-one has heard from him since.  He was stopped from boarding a flight at Beijing airport last Sunday and escorted away by police, together with his friend Wan Tao.  Earlier that week, Ai announced that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

Until Wednesday, the Chinese authorities refused to comment on his whereabouts, despite calls for his release from the UK, the United States and the European Union.  The artist’s detention is part of the toughest crackdown on activists and dissidents in China for a decade, with at least 24 people criminally detained, three more formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen missing.

China is still fuming over the award last autumn of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  He was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.

Ominously, an editorial the other day in the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to confirm the worst fears about Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei […] has been close to the red line of Chinese law. As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in which he summoned up the image of an electric storm, the thunder ‘tolling for the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake, and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’.  A year or so earlier, in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, he had asked, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Last week, with Ai Weiwei ‘misplaced inside a jail’, Dylan meekly performed a set in Beijing which had been scrutinised, censored and approved by the Chinese Culture Ministry. He failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, and kowtowed to the Chinese authorities’ insistence that he not perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Inexcusable.

Writing  in The Independent, Joan Smith noted that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented countless human rights abuses in China, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, even the UK Foreign Office was compelled to list China among ‘major countries of concern’ in its annual human rights report. Yet the diplomatic and economic policy of cozying up to China continues, with, for example, David Cameron visiting Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize.  Smith continues:

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free…

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008, perhaps Liverpudlians favourite artwork in that year’s Biennial. An article in The Guardian last year explained how Ai’s attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

To close, here’s Ai Weiwei in uncompromising mood in a photo posted on his blog, now shut down by the Chinese authorities.

 Footnote:  Ai Weiwei was finally released on 22 June, after 81 days in detention.

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern


We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.  I have my doubts about this work.  It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.

Most critics have been appreciative of this work.  I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the  fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.

But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting.  That certainly seems like a grim irony.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.


You can read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s review in full here.  An earlier post about Ai Weiwei is here.  And I loved Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.