Ai Weiwei: the dissident artist

Published on The Guardian, by Hari Kunzru, May 28, 2011.

He filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with sunflower seeds and campaigned against corruption. Then last month China’s most provocative artist disappeared. Hari Kunzru on Ai Weiwei.

As I write, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been in detention for 51 days and 6 hours. I know this so precisely because someone who goes by the handle “loveaiww” has placed a counter on the web. On the door of my flat is a poster with a silhouette of Ai, made from a photograph taken during a period when he was interested in getting (and giving) weird haircuts. His round head is surmounted by two long tufts of hair, like horns. It looks wild, comic. “Weiwei works here” says the text.

We are all Ai Weiwei, is the message. Where we are, he is too. And wherever he is, we are with him. 

Ai disappeared on 3 April, as he was about to board a plane at Beijing international airport. Until 16 May, when his wife secured a 10-minute visit, there was no official word of his whereabouts. Three days after he vanished, Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, put up a story saying he was to be charged with “economic crimes”. It was only online for a few minutes, before being taken down. Around the world supporters mounted protests outside Chinese embassies and consulates. In New York a couple of hundred of us were corralled at the side of the busy West Side Highway, the police having thoughtfully positioned us almost out of sight of the consulate and forbidden the organisers to use a megaphone. On 20 May the Beijing police finally confirmed that a company owned by Ai was being investigated for tax evasion. There is still no word of when he will be charged, let alone released … //

… Ai’s detention is, among other things, a watershed moment for the international art world, the equivalent of the moral tests so badly flunked by technology companies like Cisco and Yahoo when faced with the dizzying financial vistas of the Chinese market. Notoriously fond of adopting radical postures, and notoriously shy of turning down money, players in the business of contemporary art – gallerists, collectors, curators, auctioneers and fellow artists – must now decide what risks (if any) they are prepared to take in defence of one of their own. In the US, the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is about to host a “Summer of China” in collaboration with the Palace Museum in Beijing, has become a focus for discussion about what role museums can or should play in the debate about artistic censorship and human rights. Stung by online criticism of its decision to participate in the Hong Kong International Art Fair, Ai’s London dealer, the Lisson Gallery, recently announced that, while it “deplored” the artist’s detention and was “committed to the campaign to secure his release” . . . to “withdraw from ART HK and not show work by the artist would make us complicit in the authorities’ attempt to silence him and his supporters”. His German dealer, Neugerriemschneider, has placed a banner on the outside of its Berlin building, asking “Where is Ai Weiwei?” and distributed badges designed by Ai’s friend, the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. They will also be at ART HK, where they intend to “make Tiravanija’s statement visible”. The website of Ai’s Swiss dealer, Galerie Urs Meile, which has a space in Beijing, offers images of his work but mentions nothing about his detention. Galerie Urs Meile, which did not respond to a request for comment, will also exhibit in Hong Kong. Is “being present”, as the Lisson put it, just code for “business as usual”? Or do the galleries intend to use that presence (and their networks of wealthy and influential Chinese collectors) to further Ai’s cause? … (full long text).


Should the Milwaukee Art Museum protest Ai Weiwei’s detention? By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel, May 20, 2011;

Links for Petitions fo free Ai Wei Wei: on Call for the Release of Ai WeiWei, on Imagine Peace, 09 Apr 2011, on, on ArtInfo, (see also in the air), and on Google Web-search.

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