Artist and activist Ai Weiwei has not been seen since he was escorted out of Beijing airport on April 3rd by police. The police gave no reason for his arrest for several days until they eventually said it was on account of unspecified “economic crimes”, a charge frequently used to silence government critics. An internationally regarded artist and architect who has spent his distinguished career working for freedom of speech, his art is a statement for creating a more just world.
On Thursday, Time Magazine named him one of 2011’s Most Influential People. In his introduction, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman called Mr. Ai “the kind of visionary any nation should be proud to count among its creative class. He has drawn the world’s attention to the vibrancy of contemporary Chinese culture. More important, Ai, 53, has shown compassion for his fellow citizens and spoken out for victims of government abuses, calling for political reforms to better serve the people. It is very sad that the Chinese government has seen a need to silence one of its most innovative and illustrious citizens. For the world, Ai continues to represent the promise of China.”
While his whereabouts are unknown, his art is out on prominent display. Known for his design of the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he is recognized throughout the world. His installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds is currently filling the Tate Modern in London until Monday. The “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition is made up of millions of small pieces, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.
In introducing the exhibition, the Tate says that: “Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds challenges our first impressions: what you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means. The sculptural installation is made up of what appear to be millions of sunflower seed husks, apparently identical but actually unique. Although they look realistic, each seed is made out of porcelain. And far from being industrially produced, ‘readymade’ or found objects, they have been intricately hand-crafted by hundreds of skilled artisans. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content make this work a powerful commentary on the human condition.” Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the “Made in China” phenomenon our first impressions, which you can preview in this video featuring the artist and his exhibition, courtesy of the Tate:
Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, said he was “dismayed” by Ai’s arrest and hoped Mr. Ai “will be released immediately”.
In addition to formal statements from United States and the European Union, people have come together all over the world to call for Mr. Ai’s release. 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei is the result of a question posted on Facebook about what the arts community could do to support the safe release of Ai Weiwei.
The questions sparked great ideas, including one by curator Steven Holmes to reenact Ai Weiwei’s project Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs—an installation which was comprised of 1001 late Ming and Qing Dynasty wooden chairs at Documenta 12 in 2007 in Kassel, Germany—in front of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world.
As a result, there here have been peaceful demonstrations all over the world from Sao Paolo to San Francisco to Vienna featuring chairs in his honor. A demonstration on Saturday in Hong Kong had nearly 2,000 people, some of them tourists from mainland China who hadn’t yet heard of Ai’s detention due to government censorship. Many of the chairs are empty, a haunting reminder of the vacant chair at the Nobel Prize ceremony in December. Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei are two of the brightest minds and creative talents our world has known. And for expressing their ideas, they both now sit alone and unfree in a cell in China.
The Ted Conference in February featured this video from Ai where he said that people in his country cannot even search his name on the internet. He encourages people to seek truth and facts “which are mostly covered by the government media”. He talks about being under constant surveillance and scrutiny: “I am living in a society where freedom of speech is not allowed.”
“So to help the change, to help China become a more democratic society, you need people who can act, who can give out their opinions, amd talk to young people, and try to find a way to encourage people to be involved. So only when you are doing that can you have a civil society. So what I am doing is more trying to involve my art with the reality, trying to build a possibility and to connect art to social change.” His moving message was met with a standing ovation from the audience.
Since 2005, Mr. Weiwei has been working through the internet as well to promote this. Realizing the power of social media and communication, he organized an investigation of the Chinese earthquake and conducted extensive research to find out what happened to 5,219 missing students who were believed to have perished.
He encourages young people to be involved in politics, art and social change and said that in the next few years “China is facing a moment” for social and political change: “We are still a Communist society some basic values such as freedom of speech and human rights which is still in poor condition.”
As I write this post, there are 121,746 signatures on this petition written and organized by the Guggenheim Foundation and supported by many arts organizations which states “We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to ‘soft power’ and cultural influence.” You can learn more about Ai Weiwei’s art and the timeline of his detention at Free Ai Weiwei.