Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Call for Modest (or not) Proposals

I guess, being helpless (or thinking I was), I was simply hoping the Chinese government would slap some fine on him, but eventually relent and let Ai Weiwei go. I mean, the whole world is watching...they couldn't really keep him that long or harm him could they?

Apparently, there's a lot I have to learn about the world's rising super power. Ben Davis, who corrected a previous misunderstanding regarding another Chinese artist, cautiously reported the following update on the case of Mr. Ai:
The most sinister development — and the only real glimpse yet of what might be going on with the artist himself — has been the release of an account, penned under a pseudonym by someone identifying himself as a disaffected reporter with the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. The piece was published in English translation by ChinaAid, a United States-funded organization dedicated to tracking religious persecution in China, with the caveat that the organization could not independently confirm its veracity. It states that a "Public Security Ministry official with a conscience" told Xinhua insiders the details of the brutal means used on Ai: "Fu Zhenghua, the chief of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, instructed those handling the case to show Ai Weiwei the video of [dissident lawyer] Gao Zhisheng being tortured, including shots of electric batons being inserted into Gao's anus and his blood, semen, feces, and urine spurting out," the account alleges. "Fu Zhenghua also issued an order saying: Whatever methods were used on Gao Zhisheng, use the same ones to make Ai Weiwei give in. After several consecutive days of torture, Ai Weiwei was finally compelled to sign a statement of confession, admitting to tax evasion."

The ChinaAid account also contains a detailed narrative of how Ai's past activism personally offended several powerful Chinese officials, asserting that the current persecution has been spurred by high-level grudges. Whether or not the nightmarish descriptions of Ai's torture can be confirmed, in the absence of any word from the artist since he disappeared, observers are bound to imagine the worst.
Yesterday, artist Anish Kapoor dedicated his giant sculpture "Levithan" (which just opened at Paris' Grand Palais) to Ai Weiwei:
"I've never met Ai Weiwei but he's a colleague, an artist," said Kapoor. "In a very simple way he is heroically recording human existence. All he's done is to record death by administration, death by corruption, inefficiency. I don't even think he's pointing that sharp a finger, frankly."It is more than a month that he's been completely disappeared. It is a true tragedy. Accuse him of something. Give him a lawyer. Let him defend himself … The state is not threatened by artists."
He also called for more unified protest from the art world:
"It's a month now that the poor man has been held without a voice, but not only that, his family doesn't know where he is," Kapoor told the BBC. "This is not a situation that is acceptable in any circumstances. It does bear witness to the barbarity of governments if they're that paranoid that they have to put away artists. It's a ridiculous situation." (There is a kind of symmetry here, as Kapoor's massive tower is going to highlight the London Olympics, while Ai designed the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics, famously disowning it as a protest against the political situation in China.) Kapoor also used his stature to call for the art world to do more to take a stand, proposing a possible day of global solidarity: "Perhaps all museums and galleries should be closed for a day across the world. I think some such campaign needs to form itself."
I would agree. What I think we don't need, though, is the sort of divisive comment offered up by a curator you'd expect better from:
Roger Buergel, known for helping put on the iconic Documenta art exhibition in 2007, slammed the international art community for failing to speak out strongly enough on Mr. Ai’s disappearance. “I think most of them are glad to be rid of Ai Weiwei,” Mr. Buergel, who invited Mr. Ai to Documenta, said in an interview with Germany’s Spiegel Online. “Young Western artists are producing works that amount to nothing more than footnotes in art history, and then this Chinese artist appears who takes a totally different approach and makes 98 percent of the art world look very, very old.”
Even if Mr. Buergel sincerely feels his silly mind-reading exercise might prod people and lead to more action, it's a bit much to suggest jealousy would lead most of the art world to be glad Ai Weiwei is being detained. Besides, any such suggestion is demonstrably countered by the fact that his detention has done little to prevent Mr. Ai's work from being exhibited or bring him attention:
Exhibitions of Ai's work continue to proliferate. New York, of course, has just opened Ai's "Zodiac Heads" at the Pulitzer Fountain as a public art commission. In London, Lisson gallery is going ahead with an Ai Weiwei retrospective, while Berlin's Neugerriemschneider has recently debuted a show of his works.

Also in Germany, the German Academy of Arts announced on Saturday that Ai Weiwei had been named a member.
No, rather than Mr. Buergel's counterproductive scolding approach, I think Mr. Kapoor's call for unified campaigns sets the right tone. Clearly, more needs to be done. Organizing the art world can be akin to herding cats, but I would be willing to join other galleries and institutions by closing in protest. It would take someone like the Met being involved to really make it work (hint, hint), but spreading the idea is step one.

But I'm also willing to consider other actions. Consider this an open thread on what the art world could do to send a stronger message to our government and the Chinese government that Mr. Ai's detention is entirely unacceptable. What could send that message?

Labels: ai weiwei


Anonymous Laura Isaac said...

I'd like to see all museums & galleries organize even small exhibitions this summer of works by artists who faced persecution from their governments. Giving voices to those who authorities tried to (or are currently trying to) silence. Others could also feature more works from artists responding to the crisis. If every art institution dedicated even one wall to this it would spread awareness and send a very strong message that harming the artist does not erase their message.

Yesterday after I read the "released account" of Ai's torture, I cried. I broke down and cried and when my son asked me why I couldn't bring myself to tell him. I knew if Ai had been gone this long that his torture was a given, but reading confirmation was hard.

All we can do now if use this as a way to hopefully bring about some change. Fear can be crippling. The Chinese government knows that; they exist in a constant state of fear.

5/11/2011 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Diedra Krieger said...

City of New York and Lisson Gallery could jointly issue an open letter to the US and China to be signed by art museum executives across the world expressing dissent, demanding release and threatening suspension of traveling exhibits to China (there must be some, no?)

5/11/2011 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there t-shirts or yard signs like the picture that illustrates this blog entry?

5/11/2011 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I imagine there's all over the internet

5/11/2011 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Joanie Gagnon San Chirico said...

It's not an "official" @platea performance but some of us have been doing sunflower seed tributes while counting the hours since Mr. Ai went missing. You can read about them at:

5/11/2011 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Is there anything equivalent to what is done for journalism every year?

5/11/2011 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Maritza Ruiz-Kim said...

This is just the beginning of a thought, but what about an institution hosting an expansive outdoor display of a cooperative work made by artists/people around the world... one that could grow. I am thinking about the way the AIDS Memorial quilt covered the National Mall in DC, and of course I think of the largeness of Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at the Tate. Maybe this large work could cover a museum.

I didn't see the anonymous release of the account of Ai Weiwei's detention until just now. Painful to read.

What is happening to him, what happened to journalists & informants in Egypt during the worst of the uprisings, women's rights here being used as political chattel, what happens to the privacy of rape victims in our own US courts... my apologies for being off topic... I just see this connection, and I'm so very deeply disturbed by it all.

5/11/2011 01:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Laura Isaac said...

I think it's also important that we all continue to deal with this issue even if our projects are small (or modest... but let's not start eating children).

In the face of horror like this it is so easy to feel powerless. Doing anything, saying SOMETHING, can keep us from freezing up.

Each sunflower seed was unique, individually created, combined made a powerful statement. We are the same way.

Here's what I'm doing.
My knitting vigil.
Many knitters have joined me and we will be placing them publicly and sending them to Chinese embassies.

5/11/2011 03:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Diedra Krieger said...

large gatherings of supporters photographed doing personal versions of weiwei's study of perspective.

5/11/2011 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Build a bridge to someone you hate.

5/11/2011 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

These are lovely ideas, but I'm guessing the Chinese government will pay them no mind.

So how about hitting them where it registers?
. Don't travel to China
. Don't buy Chinese-made products
. Organize others to do the same
. Grow it into an international boycott that calls attention to the other human rights abuses in that country

5/11/2011 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Build a time Machine, go back in time and prevent Slick Willy Clinton from letting China into The W.T.O. and giving them Most Favored Nation Status. Hence no China Boom . AI would probaly not be have become a huge star . And the American middleclass still has jobs.

5/11/2011 06:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I like Joanne's sentiment "Don't buy Chinese-made products" in most respects, even though it does help give income to Chinese workers in a country with a huge pay disparity.

Not that I want to derail the sentiment but we do have our own political prisoner: Bradley Manning too.

We need to come to terms with the international phenomenon of social media and fight totalitarianism in ALL its forms.


5/12/2011 12:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Those of you calling for a China boycott realize that you will have have to stop using US dollars, yes?

5/12/2011 06:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

what if a million artists, art collectors, art critics, art historians, art curators, art shippers and art thieves , all signed the exact same confession as that signed by Wei Wei under the bias of torture?
Then show those "confessions" in a massive or concurrent series of "art" shows. Either annonymously or as celebrity signatures, then possibly gather the proceeds for a fund for artists under extreme censorship. (would you buy a piece signed by the Picasso of our times? -whomever she may be)

Obviously this does nothing to stop torture, but it might put a lie to the idea that that particular confession has any merit of truth. It might under the guise of mass production become shamefully evident to the particular authority to have no value. The shame being the goal.

Seems so strange to have two such divergent examples of tortures use in such a period.

5/12/2011 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger Sowa Mai's dog said...

boycott China

5/14/2011 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen Lipman said...

How about this effective method used by the ACLU amongst others... An online petition form targeted to the users representative in the Senate. If elected officials see a large enough number of their constituents involved with an issue, they often take action. Also, to spread the word, create a facebook 'chain'... each person asks friends to tell at least 5 friends about this issue.

5/15/2011 09:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

a thousand blossoms of the spring wherein a 1000 artists,critics,curators,collectors all sign the exact same official confession as wei wei

auction those off and use the funds to create a support system for extreme censorship

put face to the inherent lack of authenticity of the signed words

galleries could ask there stables of artists if they would be willing, and then hold a shows individually and a collective auction somehow

5/16/2011 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Moopheus said...

Yeah, boycott China! Do you really think these guys give a fuck what the international art community thinks of them? Close galleries in protest? That'll really have them quaking in their boots! What you should do is have exhibits showcasing all the crap we buy from them, covered in blood.

5/18/2011 01:38:00 PM  

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