On April 3rd 2011, one of the most interesting contemporary visual artists working today lost his freedom and disappeared off the face of the earth. Mainland Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese police while boarding a plane to Hong Kong at the Beijing airport. China’s own legal deadline has passed. Under Chinese law, the suspect must be either formally charged or released within 30 days. At the point of writing of this article, Ai Weiwei has been missing for over forty days and has only been allowed one brief visit from his wife, Lu Xing.
Ai is an artist and Chinese citizen that has contributed to our understanding of relational practice and public art. He has been celebrated in the international art arena due to his sensitive understanding of harmony and classical balance in his practice as well as his outstanding courage in speaking out against the injustices in his own country, and advocating for reform in a corrupt political system. His work and process have an intuitive understanding of the interactions and workings of society, the negotiations of the individual in influencing the collective. Ai’s consistent communication with his fans and followers, via Twitter and blog posts, video dialogues and documentaries gesture towards a process that believes in art committed to social change, freedom of speech and intercultural dialogue.
Ai first came to the attention of the global international art audience with Fairytale, the work commissioned for Documenta 12 in 2007. The work featured 1001 Chinese citizens brought over from Mainland China to Kassel Germany, home of the Grimm’s Fairytales for the exhibition. Concerned with issues of identity, Diaspora, travel, and immigration, the project was miraculously evocative on many levels intuitively understanding the projections that one culture makes of another.
The Sichuan Earthquake Names Project culminating in the So Sorry exhibition at Haus Der Kunst featured an investigation and an accounting of the official number of deaths that were withheld by the Chinese Government. Ai’s work of art through lived experience, creates not only wonder, but tenderness and truth, the Sichuan project sought to change the fabric of reality through a general accounting, an archive of numerical record and data, the very names and numbers acting as a reckoning of judgment and justice.
In response, artists and curators have been involved in actions all around the world. Artist Anish Kapoor has dedicated his new exhibition to Ai, and spoken out strongly against the detainment urging countries to close their museums for a day. The Tate’s Turbine Hall, currently showing Ai’s Sunflower Seeds as part of their Unilever series have stencilled a “Release Ai Weiwei” banner on top of their museum. Artist Hamish Fulton has been commissioned to do a performance piece entitled Slowalk, in which volunteers are asked to slowly walk across the Turbine Hall in a performance gesturing towards some of the main themes of Ai’s work on the practice of everyday life. Lisson Gallery opened one of Ai’s largest comprehensive shows of his work yet, as well as publicly stating concern about the detainment that has threatened Ai’s right to speak out as an artist. Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie has also spoken out strongly against Ai Weiwei’s detainment reminding us that in the end, art will last centuries while totalitarian governments will inevitably fall.
In Hong Kong, there have been multiple protests that have been launched since Ai’s disappearance on April 3rd. A young graffiti artist using the tag name “Tangerine” has stencilled Ai’s face and the words “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei” all around the city, with a projection of the graffiti launched directly onto the side of the China Liaison Office Building. A group of artists and curators have formed a collective entitled Art Citizens, which have been launching actions that include “one rock one person” on May 12th 2011, the three-year anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake Disaster. Supporters are encouraged to write the name of a Sichuan Earthquake victim on a rock and photograph as well as Google map and upload it onto the Art Citizen’s facebook webpage.
The complicated convolutions of Ai’s art and influence have not ended with his detainment. His artistic practice has become an intervention, his interactions with China as readymade strike a chord of truth and of the beliefs of risk in China, for values and for idealism. Perhaps his artistic interventions have made him one of the last real optimists left in the country. All of us should emulate or stand strong from his courage. Ai’s very presence as well as absence reminds us of liberty, even through persecution.