In an era when censorship and art rarely appear in the same sentence, few things are more shocking than an artist being arrested for a bit of dissent. Yet, such things still happen and are too often quickly brushed aside as the extreme consequence of the odd repressive regime.
More than 40 days ago, as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was about to board a plane in Beijing, he was arrested and taken away to an undisclosed location. He is still detained and he was not allowed contact with his family, friends or lawyers until a few days ago. Sunday he was finally given permission to briefly meet with his wife, in the presence of his jailers who warned her that she was not to discuss the visit as it could “be bad for Mr Ai’s case”. Ai Weiwei is the artist who contributed to the design of Beijing’s Olympics Stadium, that big bird’s nest that has come to represent an event that was meant to show that China was ready to open itself up to to the rest of the world…
This is nothing new for Weiwei who was put under house arrest in November 2010 when he tried to turn the forced demolition of his Shanghai studio into an event. He had initially been invited to build the place at the cost of over £600.000 which was then declared illegal and earmarked for demolition because, according to the director of the urban construction department in Malu township as quoted in News of the World, “Ai’s studio did not go through the application procedures, therefore, it is an illegal building”.
What is he accused of this time? Not of displeasing the Chinese government with subtly and symbolically critical art, of course. Do you remember the porcelain Sunflower Seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbine hall? Each one of the seeds forming a carpet covering most of the floor of Tate’s lower level had been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Each little seed represented an individual that would toil in anonymity for a lifetime, crafting one of China’s most successful exports – porcelain – without recognition or profit. The sculpture was meant to be walked on, in spite of Tate’s decision to cordon it off, partly because the work served as a metaphorical reflection of highly skilled Chinese artisans being trampled by a repressive government.
Is this so shocking and offensive that the artist ought to be behind bars? Of course not, by nobody’s standard is this punishment equal retribution for the crime. That is why, in the face of international protest and consternation, China’s foreign ministry has insisted that his case has “nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression”. Instead, it is claimed that he is under investigation for suspected “economic crimes”. Will Ai Weiwei’s fate ironically mirror that of the infamous Al Capone, the American mobster who was finally imprisoned for tax evasion after eluding justice for much greater crimes? It would not be entirely inconceivable even if Weiwei’ss greatest crime consists in aesthetically expressing his disagreement with his government’s lax approach to human rights.
If you feel powerless and frustrated by the situation of artists and other fellow human beings in repressive regimes, you might find the talks on politically engaged art and activism that are currently taking place at Sommerset House enlightening. You can also see one of Weiwei’s works in the couryard: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. Good luck decrypting its subtle form of criticism. If you can’t decipher it, you can trust the Chinese government to find some form of offense in it…
23 May 2011
Politics in the Age of Twitter – Somerset House, The Portico Rooms, 19.00 – 20:30
The talk will examine the wider impact of the internet and social media, in particular, on the practice of 21st century politics and the nature of protest movements.
Speakers: Dr Anne Alexander – Cambridge University; Dr Joss Hands – Author of @ is for Activism; Sunny Hundal – Editor of Liberal Conspiracy blog and John Kampfner -News Editor, Index on Censorship.
6 June 2011
Art, Activism and the Avant-garde – Somerset House, The Portico Rooms, 19.00 – 20:30
This talk will explore the role of politically engaged art, its effect as a catalyst for social change and criticism of modern day issues such as rising social inequality, global warming and government cuts. Speakers: Greg Hilty – Curatorial Director of Lisson Gallery, Mel Jordan – Freee art collective, Bob and Roberta Smith – artist and Tom Trevor – Director of Arnolfini, Bristol.