Ai Weiwei’s “silence before the storm”
For anyone who reckons that, in the greater scheme of things, art is unimportant, here are two words: Ai Weiwei.
The Chinese artist was arrested on April 3rd in Beijing, and has not been seen or heard of since. His alleged offences are for “suspected economic crimes” but few are in doubt that he is being punished for his relentless criticism of the Chinese government.
The initial public outcry at his arrest has dampened in recent weeks, so well done to sculptor Anish Kapoor for calling on the world’s museums and galleries to close for a day in protest at Ai’s continued detention.
Many of these galleries have already launched an online petition for Weiwei’s release – you can sign it for yourself over here. Kapoor has also upped the ante by dedicating his next exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the Grand Palais in Paris, to Ai.
Both artists have produced work for the Unilever series in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but Ai’s work has taken on an added level of relevance and poignancy since his arrest.
The Tate show, which ended just last week, was made up of millions of tiny sunflower seeds – each one was individually sculpted and painted by specialists in China. It was a celebration of collective effort, of the ability of masses or people working together to create something beautiful and lasting (which should have appealed to the Chinese government), while at the same time honouring the importance of the individual (perhaps not the politburo’s cup of tea).
Ai’s arrest and detention is depressing, but it is certainly not surprising. In a wide-ranging interview for this newspaper with Clifford Coonan, he repeatedly attacked censorship and the abuse of human rights with a focused, quiet dignity. In this excellent piece he says: “I’m an individual who wants my experience, my beliefs and my social-political values to be brought into my main activities as an artist.”
This article seems disturbingly prescient now. In it, Coonan discusses how the artist’s immense profile had, until then, largely protected him from the long arm of the Chinese government, although Ai was beaten up by police in 2009 (to the extent that he needed fluid removed from his skull), and at the beginning of the year his studio was demolished without warning. Ai was fully aware that he was under surveillance, but refused to hold his tongue.
“You cannot say we need to sacrifice somebody’s rights because we need a better society, or a more efficient society,” he said. “I would never take that. I don’t understand this kind of argument, because if you don’t let people have the opportunity to be educated, to get the right information, to express themselves, to freely associate with others, what kind of society do you have? Why do we need development? This is not arguable. This is the basic necessity, the bottom line.”
He ended on a particularly defiant note. When asked what would be the next big event in China, he responded: “The revolution. They always say there is silence before the storm. There are many, many crises. If they try to make it look like nothing has happened, it’s not a good tactic; they will accumulate . . The Russian revolution, the whole Eastern bloc thing, happened when everyone said: “That’s enough!”
Sadly for the artist, the next major thing to happen to China was his arrest. Here’s hoping it helps lead to the revolution.