Ai Weiwei: Planting originality, reaping Beijing’s fury

Linked on our blogs with Should the Milwaukee Art Museum protest Ai Weiwei’s detention? By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel, May 20, 2011. – Published on Worldviews Conference, by Lisa Rochon, June 10, 2011.

Try as they may, Chinese authorities cannot disappear Ai Weiwei. During the last two months – ever since the laconic, philosopher-artist, design architect and political activist was seized at a Beijing airport and stuffed away in an unknown location – images and videos of his elegiac work are being watched by a global audience more intensely than ever.

The Guggenheim Museum, the Andy Warhol Foundation and are circulating online petitions demanding Ai’s release, calls being echoed by the Vancouver Art Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Release Ai Weiwei” has been prominently printed across the light box topping the Tate Modern in London, while, inside, its Turbine Hall hosted 100 million handcrafted sunflower seeds tenderly painted with stripes of black and white, Ai’s most recent, mind-altering installation. 

Ai, now 54, wanted to prod China into a democracy where human rights and freedom of expression could flourish. His art and architecture were a means to that end.

Back in 2003, Ai was selected to collaborate with Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, architects of impeccable integrity and materials innovation, on the design of the 100,000-seat Beijing National Stadium. The challenge was to create a contemporary icon that looked grounded in Chinese culture while signalling a leap into the future. A curved lattice structure, requiring masses of steel girders, was woven together on an epic scale to create one of the enduring images of the 2008 Olympic Games.

When it came to understanding the power of architecture to rebrand an institution or, indeed, a communist country with a disturbing human-rights record, Chinese planning visionaries were as enlightened as any hip museum director. Ai was their ace to play on the world stage and, for a moment, there was the promise in the air that even the Czar of Dissent, to coin a phrase from Bob Dylan, was finally breathing fresh, authentic freedom.

In 2008, buoyed by the world’s love affair with their Bird’s Nest, the Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron gushed like blushing brides about their decision to engage with China. “Everybody knows what happens in China. All work conditions in China are not what you’d desire,” said Jacques Herzog. “I believe that doing the stadium … will change radically and transform the society. Engagement is the best way of moving in the right direction” … (full text).

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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