It may not be what you think.
On June 22nd, 2011, a few weeks after I wrote my essay on the plight of artist Ai Weiwei for this magazine, he was released on bail after admitting to “tax evasion.” The admission and subsequent release in response to the dubious charge was a by-product of the international pressure applied on China by thousands around the world on behalf of the outspoken artist. The worst, I fear, is not yet over for Ai. The trials ahead remain uncertain and are sure to be difficult. A coalition of artists, of which I’m apart, continues to keep a close eye and stay involved.
Sadly, Ai’s disappearance and arrest are not endemic to China alone. In Iran, two acclaimed filmmakers remain incarcerated for alleged crimes against the state: Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. Panahi is currently serving a six-year sentence while receiving a two-decades long employment ban. Rasoulof was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime.” The pair of filmmakers recently presented films, in absentia, smuggled out of Iran, at the Festival du Cannes. Rasoulof’s Bé Omid é Didar (Good Bye) was an Official Selection, Un Certain Regard. Panahi’s In Film Nist (This is not a Film) was selected as a Special Screening in the Official Selection. Filmmakers from around the world gathered on Cannes’ Croisette to stand in fellowship with the Panahi and Rasoulof. I encourage everyone to see these films because they are at once powerful examples of turning censorship into art and the quiet revolution of the human spirit, which remains impossible to cage and destroy.
“The reality of being alive and the dream of keeping cinema alive motivated us to go through the existing limitations in Iranian cinema,” Jafar Panahi wrote in a letter sent to the festival. “Mohammad Rasoulof’s film and the conditions under which it was made, Jafar Panahi’s ‘diary’ of the days of his life as an artist not allowed to work, are by their very existence a resistance to the legal action which affects them,” read a statement from the festival’s Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux. “That they send them to Cannes, at the same time, the same year, when they face the same fate, is an act of courage along with an incredible artistic message. Cannes is the international institution that protects them.”
Still, it is clear that for these and many other artists, freedom of conscience occasions greater peril than despotism and autocracy. “Our problems are also all of our assets,” Jafar Panahi wrote. “Understanding this promising paradox helped us not to lose hope, and to be able to go on since we believe wherever in the world that we live, we are going to face problems, big or small. But it is our duty not to be defeated and to find solutions.”
Indeed, these words serve as a reminder that true freedom is still elusive. What is left is our steadfast obligation to defend society against the forces that strive to raze it to the ground in pursuit of retaining power. Ai’s words remain a sobering clarion call: “If there is one person who is still not free, then I am not.”
In Defense of Humans: The Disappearance of Artist Ai Weiwei
On April 3, internationally celebrated artist Ai Weiwei was scheduled to travel from Beijing international airport. China’s most famous artist and provocateur never made it to his plane. Instead he just disappeared.
The Chinese authorities had grabbed him. Six weeks later, the Chinese government issued a public statement: Ai was being held for “economic crimes.” People around the world swiftly mobilized protests in front of Chinese embassies and consulates calling for his immediate release. With the exception of the Beijing police’s vague statement that a company owned by Ai is under investigation for “tax evasion,” there was a deafening silence from the Chinese government about Ai’s imprisonment. As I write this, Ai sits locked away in an undisclosed location, not charged with any crime.
While saddened to learn of Ai’s imprisonment, I was not surprised. I first met Ai Weiwei (pronounced “Eye Way-way”) in New York City two decades ago, just before his amazing ascension to global art star. How he eluded the wrath of the Chinese government for so long is his ultimate creative achievement, his signature masterwork.
Up to that point in my life (I was twenty-one), I never personally encountered any artist who wanted to engage people directly. I learned of Ai’s involvement in the “Democracy Wall” movement of 1978, which sprang up once the Communist Party relaxed some of its polices. Ai’s participation in the movement resulted in his arrest and a fifteen-year sentence in a labor camp. Ai did not serve anytime and instead soon after moved to New York where he lived from 1981-1993. From this point forward, Ai never shied away from his belief in democratic change. He chased this objective through his art.
Along the way, Ai assembled a remarkable work combining his ranging concerns and awareness. Photography, books, furniture, installations, and paintings all display Ai’s sweeping vision of the world as a diverse dissonance of voices working together. One notable example is Ai’s contribution Fairytale to Documenta, an exhibition of contemporary and modern art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Inviting people from all over China through his blog, Ai brought 1,001 people to Kassel. Ai designed their clothes and luggage, and he set-up a temporary home for them in an abandoned textile factory.
“To design also means to set up a condition, which makes individuals change,” Ai explained. “The project is about a new way to communicate, to participate, a new spiritual condition.”
Perhaps Ai’s most compelling and chilling work is one I first saw exhibited on May 4 at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in New York City, just when the artist disappeared. Titled Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai presents replicas of eighteenth century heads found in Beijing’s Old Summer Palace. During the Second Opium War, these heads were vandalized by French and British troops. As a crowd gathered to witness the unveiling of the exhibit, Ai’s words were read aloud: “Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one."
Over the past decade, Ai’s work has become more curious, even capricious. Ai was the artistic consultant for the Beijing Olympic stadium (before the 2008 Olympics, Ai rejected the event as a “fake smile”). Last October, Ai filled the august Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London with a carpet of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Vicente Todolí, the Tate’s director, described Ai’s installations as “among the most socially engaged works of art being made today.”
From the moment of I encountered him in lower Manhattan, Ai possessed an understanding of the world that, as Seamus Haney once said, “the end of art is peace.” Ai’s pursuit of a universal truth, a common humanity that we all share, found an outlet in his ever-expanding eclectic creativity and brash imagination. A note that I jotted down in a battered journal I have from that time best sums up one encounter: “I must have a purpose, to guard the dignity of life. . . . It’s outrageous to live in a circumstance where people are denied the opportunity to their rights.”
Another note I came across in my journal about Ai Weiwei was he seemed to take up the role of Voltaire, sharing the writer’s ability to cleverly call out the hypocrisy and absurdity the powerful always seem to propagate. On learning of Ai’s imprisonment the connection tightened. “It’s dangerous to be right when established men are wrong,” Voltaire said after escaping to exile from France, only to be placed in the Bastille upon his return in 1717.
I could tell, early on, that Ai possessed an innate sensibility that all great artists share: a spiky wit joined with a probing intellect. Underneath it all is Ai’s conviction that art is not a monologue, but a starting point for a new dialogue, a discussion that leads to a re-imagining of what kind of world we all want to live in. “We want to be masters of our own destiny,” Ai writes. “We need no Gods or Emperors. We do not believe in the existence of any savior. We want to be masters of the world and not instruments used by autocrats to carry out their wild ambitions. We want a modern lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernization.”
He first witnessed the Chinese’s government reactionary cruelty when it banished his father, the poet Ai Qing, after he published “The Gardener’s Dream,’’ a poem calling for greater creative freedom. Sent to the outer reaches of China for “reeducation through labor,” Ai’s father was forced to clean public toilets.
Throughout his career, Ai Weiwei never held his tongue in fear that the powerful would silence him. “Freedom of expression is one of life’s basic rights,” he says. The objective of his art, he adds, is “to give voice to the voiceless.”
The advent of social media, particularly Twitter, which is blocked in China, allowed him to further amplify his dissent. Ai bypasses China’s censors and utilizes social media through the use of proxy servers, which is are computer systems that act as an intermediary for request from users seeking unavailable services (in this case, access to the world wide web). For example, every day Ai’s office posts a list of students who were born on that day and died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. He calls this a “Citizen Investigation,” an effort to find the answers to what caused the deaths of so many children who died in badly built schools. “We shouldn’t do things a certain way just because Rembrandt did it that way,” Ai explains. “If Shakespeare were alive today, he might be writing on Twitter.”
Soon after Ai’s arrest, I joined fellow artists in New York to voice our support for the imprisoned artist. We were shunted far from the Chinese consulate and denied the use of any type of amplification to voice our demands. It seems clear that we will find few friends in positions of power here. The U.S. government remains hesitant to press the ever-growing economic colossus to the East, which now holds its hands firmly on the reins of the global economy.
The circumstances surrounding Ai’s imprisonment brings to the mind the stark reality that for every Ai Weiwei, celebrated and famous, there are thousands detained, unknown and invisible to the world, who sit anonymously locked away, guilty of nothing more than expressing their hope of being free.
The Chinese government remains defiantly quiet on the artist’s plight and what may become of him. It’s upon us to step forward and create international pressure demanding Ai’s release.
“If there is one person who is still not free, then I am not,” Ai WeiWei tweeted on August 23, 2009. “If there is one person who still suffers from insult and humiliation, then I do. Do you understand yet?” I fear that we still do not understand.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is a writer, filmmaker and visual artist. His current books are Mayday (with artist Shepard Fairey) and A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears. D’Ambrosio is the founder and executive director of La Lutta NMC, a new media production nonprofit.