Ai Weiwei
at 5:09pm on 14th May 2011


1. © Ai Weiwei, 2011. Photo by tinaypang.

2. Stencilled graffiti in Causeway Bay about government decision to prosecute graffiti artists who have placed graffiti around Hong Kong in support of Ai Weiwei. Photo by John Batten.

3. © Ai Weiwei, 2011. Photo by tinaypang.

4. © Olafur Eliasson, 2011. Photo by tinaypang.

5. © Tomás Saraceno, 2011. Photo by tinaypang.


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Ai Weiwei’s detention in China


In Hong Kong, an alliance of artists and members of the art scene, Art Citizens, was quickly formed in direct response to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s recent arbitrary detention in China. Tina Pang’s pertinent commentary from New York focuses on two current installations of Ai’s work in the USA and the art world’s wider reaction to the detention and disappearance of Ai Weiwei. This reaction has been immediate and includes calls for international museums to boycott exhibitions emanating from China.

Graffiti in support of freedom of speech and demands for Ai’s release from custody can be seen around Hong Kong with Art Citizens organizing talks, rallies and impromptu performances in busy streets and shopping areas frequented by mainland tourists.

Report from New York by Tina Yee-wan Pang:

In the month since the artist Ai Weiwei was detained by Chinese authorities, surely the most unanticipated consequence of that action has been the transformation of sites of exhibition into those of opposition and protest. Ai’s position as an art world luminary, and the demands of the international art circuit have meant that since late March, exhibitions of his work have given his cause a visibility and reach that even those seeking the release of the Nobel prize-winning writer and activist Liu Xiaobo have been unable to effect.

Extending from the actions of individual artists – for example, the British artist Anish Kapoor has dedicated his work Leviathan, on view in Paris, to Ai with a statement echoing the artist’s own words, published recently (1); Rirkrit Tiravanija has gone a step further in making a banner that hangs from Berlin’s Neugerriemschneider Gallery, where Ai’s sculptures are on view, that reads simply, “Where is Ai Weiwei?”(2) – to sit-ins that reference the artist’s installations at the last Documenta, demonstrations, and online petitions.

Of international art organizations, AICA has been vocal in its call for Ai’s release, and individual AICA chapters have added their own responses(3). Among the first to issue statements were the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) who sent a message to Cai Wu, the Minister of Culture in China, calling for Ai’s release on the 5thApril, two days after he was detained. Citing CIMAM’s call, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation initiated an online petition shortly afterwards at Change.org, which to date has attracted over 130,000 signatures, including an impressive list of international museum presidents and directors (4).

In London, the Tate Modern, which is currently showing Ai’s Sunflower Seeds installations in the Turbine Hall has joined the international protest by broadcasting “Release Ai Weiwei” from the lightbox at the top of the museum (5). Although over 500 individual artists, curators and other supporters added their names to an open letter to The Guardian newspaper in the UK in April urging governments to pressure China for Ai’s release, some institutions have not been quite so visible in their support of the artist (6). This has prompted the UK Museums Association to be unusually pointed in urging the British Council, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in particular to rethink their plans for a major exhibition of Chinese and European ceramics due to take place in China in 2012.

The former chairman of the UK Museums Association’s ethics committee, Tristram Besterman, urged museums to:

"…respond [to the detention of Ai Weiwei] on two levels.

Publicly, they should refrain from endorsing a regime that is repressing artists. But behind that, there should be continued quiet, professional engagement.

The British Council should think very hard about the exhibition. Although operating at arms-length, it is seen to represent the government.

If the British Council is seen to be actively engaging like this, the Chinese authorities can manipulate that into an endorsement of their policies. I would be uncomfortable about that" (7).

Nevertheless, the British Council’s position is that of engagement: “The arts provide powerful ways of establishing open dialogue between people and cultures, and this is essential to building understanding and trust. We do not support cultural boycotts – dialogue is better than isolation”(8). Incidentally, the former CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Graham Sheffield, will be taking up his position of Director Arts at the British Council in May.

In light of Ai’s deepening pre-occupation with bringing cases of injustice to light, and using his art and celebrity outside of China to force pressure within, that he is now no longer free, seems to be entirely consistent with the climate of repression that now prevails in China. As Geremie Barmé has pointed out in an article on The China Beat blog, Ai is exceptional, both in being so bold, and in turning away from the more cynical but lucrative aspects of the international artworld (9). His detention is forcing some uncomfortable issues out into the open, both within and outside China, and has out of necessity, added to the discussion, not just of wither China, but also wither art?

The level at which Ai’s work has been pushing the boundaries of political tolerance in China can be seen to a greater or lesser degree in two current exhibitions in New York City, and Cambridge, MA.

Just this week, on the morning of Wednesday 4 May 2011, New York’s Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg presided over the official opening of Ai’s Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, at which he was vocal in his support of Ai, regardless it seemed of his considerable business interests in China. He also spoke passionately about the value of freedom, diversity and dissent to a city, and by extension the value of these freedoms to a nation. Although the artist was of course absent, his presence was evoked in readings from a recently published volume of his interviews and blog entries by artists and curators including Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, who concluded the event by quoting Ai, “Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one”(10).

The installation of Ai’s Zodiac Heads was shown last year at the Sao Paolo biennial, and its current incarnation is being offered as his first public sculpture. It is hard to gauge what is meant by public sculpture on this occasion, especially when one of Ai’s more powerful works is also currently on view at Harvard University as part of a “project in art and the public domain”. In this case though, we may take it to refer prosaically to the prominent position that this installation occupies. Facing the southernmost tip of Manhattan’s Central Park, the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, where the artwork is installed, is adjacent to the Plaza Hotel and across the street from the giant 24-hr Apple Store. Between the Apple Store and the Park, it is hard to imagine a location more likely to witness an endless stream of tourists and New Yorkers alike. It is the first time that an art installation has been placed here.

Now that the speeches and the opening ceremony are over, it is feasible that a visitor might not see beyond the façade of this semi-circular array of vaguely comic zodiac heads to reveal the full context that this work now occupies, a context that did not exist when the exhibition was planned. At the site, there is no indication of anything amiss, just a small sign about the Chinese zodiac and a booth selling a souvenir publication (at $20) and t-shirt (also at $20). Ai’s installation refers not simply to the Jesuit-designed bronze heads taken from the Qing imperial gardens of the Yuanming yuan when it was sacked by Anglo-French troops in 1860, but rather to their more recent history in which a number of them have been quite spectacularly fought over at auctions from Hong Kong to Paris. His is a commentary on notions of authenticity, both of the object, and of cultural patrimony and entitlement. There is little doubt that given the prominence of this location, as Ai’s own fate continues to remain unclear, this installation will begin to gather its own unanticipated layers of complexity.

Less public is Ai’s contribution to an ambitious tri-partite project across Harvard University’s campus called The Divine Comedy, organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Art Museums. Although this is a self-professed project in art and the public domain, it raises some questions about what is meant by public art, who are the intended audiences, and how do we measure the impact or success of a project such as this? It might be argued that in these terms, Ai’s Zodiac Heads are far more transparent. The project is on view until mid-May, and also includes works by the artists Olafur Eliasson (Three to Now, 2011) and Tomás Saraceno (Cloud City, 2011) (11). Given the attention that Ai’s case has attracted outside of the art world, it is a shame that this installation at Harvard’s Northwest Labs remains relatively obscure; articles about it have largely been written by Harvard’s own students (12). Yet, of all Ai’s work that can currently be seen, this might be the most pertinent. Comprising the outdoor installation Untitled, and an audio piece called Remembrance, this work is his commentary on the death of schoolchildren during the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, and marks Ai’s transition from artist/ performance artist to activist. His year-long ‘citizen’s investigation’ held the government culpable for the corruption manifest in the shoddy tofu (beancurd) construction of school buildings that collapsed, killing the 5,335 children represented by backpacks piled high outside Harvard’s Northwest Labs. Inside the building, arrows take one down into a common area where in a discreet space, Ai’s voice can be heard reading aloud the names of the children whose lives were lost. It is a poignant and haunting work, lost in that space and lost perhaps a little in translation. Without an audience, a work like this withers.

At the second part of the project, where Olafur Eliasson’s complex work fills the lobby of Gund Hall with moving parts, coloured lights and black box artworks, a small pile of photocopied sheets were being distributed from a counter. On one side of each sheet was a copy of CIMAM’s letter to Cai Wu calling for Ai’s release alongside a report from The Guardian newspaper dated 8th April. On the other side were two other news items about the shooting dead of the Israeli peace activist Juliano Mer Khamis who ran a drama project in a Palestinian refugee camp, and the sacking of the director of the Sharjah Biennial, Jack Persekian over an artwork deemed offensive.

The clustering together of these disparate cases places Ai’s predicament squarely within a context in which we must feel an equal sense of outrage and urgency when artists’ and curators have their freedom to work threatened, especially when that occurs under the aegis of ‘soft power’ or ‘cultural diplomacy’. Until he began researching the deaths in Sichuan, Ai worked relatively unimpeded, with the tacit support of the authorities because of his lineage, and because he was an art world celebrity. His freedom to work reflected well on China, especially at a time when the art world and its market are re-positioning towards Asia. The provocations of his actions in recent years have led some commentators to reflect upon the role of those outside China in encouraging him towards what now appears an inevitable and entirely predictable outcome (13). Although to suggest that Ai might be persuaded to any course of action other than his own, seems ludicrous. “Rather, Weiwei has been very much a Chinese critic, addressing internal concerns but speaking far beyond the borders of the party-state. In fact, he belongs to a long line of modern Chinese thinkers and cultural figures whose moral outrage in the face of tyranny has taken the form of lambast, irony or biting satire” (14).

In being silenced, however, Ai Weiwei is having an impact that may well force a reckoning of some of the workings of the art world, and our understanding of the limits of ‘soft power’ and ‘cultural diplomacy’:

"The arrest of Ai Weiwei rather undermines this concept of cultural diplomacy… Weiwei has spoken out in favour of universal human rights. He has used his position as an artist to expose inequality and corruption, and he has risked his freedom to do so.

It’s now time for those in positions of power in the cultural sector to take a stand. And it is time for a different model of international partnership to be constructed"(15).

As long as Ai’s fate remains undetermined, and those of us that can continue to pressure for his release, do, there may remain some room for the kind of cautious optimism that Evan Osnos writes of in his “Letter from China” for The New Yorker, in the influence of individuals like Ai to effect social and political change in China:

"One night last year in the western city of Chengdu, I watched people turn up to have dinner with Ai Weiwei even though they knew he was being monitored and that they would be recorded seeing him. They were neither activists nor artists; just ordinary lawyers, homemakers, reporters, Web engineers—people who found something in his ideas or his way of life that resonated with them. Imagining that they don’t represent a force capable of affecting China’s future is a misreading of Chinese history, in which small groups of motivated thinkers and doers have produced extraordinary impacts"(16).

Yet the Chinese authorities have shown themselves not just resistant, but increasingly defiant in the face of pressures of any kind. Ai’s fate is likely not good, in large part because of how the law is being applied as The Economist’s “Banyan” blog reports, “to impose political orthodoxy”, and because of “the increasingly common resort to informal detentions, punishments and disappearances which are completely outside the law, and so offer the government deniability and the victim no protection whatsoever.”

"The government now dismisses the idea that one function of the law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power. On March 4th a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told foreign journalists who had been beaten up by Chinese police while going about their work: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” Some people, she said, want to make trouble in China and “for people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them"(17).

Ai’s exceptional status, as an artist-celebrity, activist, writer, and intellectual will no doubt continue to attract broad and widespread actions outside China on his behalf. Within China, however, Ai’s detention sends a clear unambiguous message to the unexceptional ordinary man that no matter how famous you are, how international a platform you have, if you seek to express a Chinese reality that the authorities find unfavorable, you face an uncertain and increasingly gloomy future in which there may be little or no access to protection under the law. We should all be concerned about that.


(1) “Sculptor Kapoor dedicates work to jailed Chinese artist”, in a statement to Agence France Presse on 3 May 2011, Kapoor writes that "I wish to dedicate my new work, Leviathan at the Grand Palais, Paris, to my colleague Ai Weiwei. His arrest, disappearance and alleged torture are unacceptable… When governments silence artists it bears witness to their barbarity." Kapoor's installation will be on view from May 11 to June 23; Lee Ambrozy, Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, (2006-2009), MIT Press, 2011. See below the report on the opening of Ai’s Zodiac Heads in New York.

(2) Reported by Sameer Reddy, “Tour d’Art /Berlin Gallery Week”, The New York Times Style Magazine, May 3, 2011

(3) http://www.aica-int.org/spip.php?article1156

(4) http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei

(5) Sharon Heal, “Editorial”, Museums Journal, Issue 111/05, p. 4, 03.05.2011

(6) “Letter to The Guardian in Support of Ai Weiwei, Urging Governments to Pressure China, Signed by 509”, posted on Artists Speak Out blog, April 8, 2011, http://artistsspeakout.com/2011/04/letter-to-guardian-in-support-of-ai-weiwei-urging-governments-to-pressure-china-signed-by-over-500/

(7) Patrick Steel, “Museums urged to rethink touring exhibition to China”, Museums Journal, Issue 111/05, p. 5, 03.05.2011.

(8) Steel.

(9) Geremie R. Barmé, “A View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit” posted on The China Beat blog, April 27, 2011, http://www.thechinabeat.org/?p=3371

(10) Javier C. Hernandez, “At Sculpture Unveiling, Calls to Free Artist”, New York Times, May 4, 2011.

(11) For more information visit http://thedivinecomedy.org/

(12) Jessica A. Sequeira, “Notes on Ai Weiwei”, The Harvard Crimson, published April 22, 2011, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/4/22/ais-work-ai-one/; Alexandra Perloff-Giles, “Students at Harvard Demonstrate Support for Detained Artist Ai Weiwei”, Huffington Post blog, posted April 11, 2011, 03:49 pm, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alexandra-perloffgiles/ai-weiwei-harvard_b_847502.html

(13) Ian Johnson, “China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?”, The New York Review of Books, “NYR blog”, posted April 22, 2011 12:30 p.m, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/apr/22/ai-weiwei-arrest-china/

(14) Barmé.

(15) Sharon Heal, “Sector must stand up to abuses of human rights”, Museums Journal, Issue 111/05, p. 4, 03.05.2011

(16) Evan Osnos, “Why Ai Weiwei matters”, posted on April 12, 2011 to “Letter from China” blog at The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/evanosnos/2011/04/why-ai-weiwei-matters.html#ixzz1KgT3dHFD

(17) The Economist’s “Banyan” blog post, “A spear not a shield”, Apr 4th 2011, http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/04/law_china

Exhibition: Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads
Date: 2.5. – 15.7.2011
Venue: Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza, 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, New York

Exhibition: The Divine Comedy
Date: 21.3. – 17.5.2011
Venue: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA: Northwest Labs, Gund Hall and Carpenter Center