Friends and colleagues close to Ai Weiwei often become quiet and guarded when discussing his current predicament. If, like some of them, he also believed that the Chinese authorities look set to take increasingly aggressive action to silence his critiques of the Chinese government and society, not only does it mean that he may have expected something along these lines to occur, but some even wonder if this isn’t part of his expectation. Whatever the case, there are those that predicted some time ago that the increasingly bellicose conflict between the renowned artist and activist and the might of the Chinese state, played out in the international media, would run according to very different lines after the world’s attention drawn to China by events such as the 2008 Olympic Games and more recent World Expo moved elsewhere.
Ai Weiwei’s arrest as he attempted to board a plane bound for Hong Kong at the beginning of April was an indication of the direction that things might take.
With his whereabouts still shrouded in mystery and Chinese authorities only occasionally issuing statements to the effect that he is under arrest for ‘economic crimes’ or ‘for spreading pornography over the Internet’, it may be too early to tell exactly what is to become of Ai Weiwei and what the current state of affairs means for the ongoing conflict between the authorities and the dissident artist. If history has taught us anything it is that the complexities of Chinese culture in combination with the ideological position of power structures at the helm of the vast People’s Republic of China are second-guessed at our own peril. China has shown a persistent capability at the unexpected.
Thus, Dazed & Confused’s feature on Ai Weiwei that comprises William Oliver’s conversations with artists and curators about Ai Weiwei and his work and an interview with the artist himself, given to Henrik Bork for a German newspaper just five days before he was detained, is a timely recap for those already familiar with Ai Weiwei and his work and a fresh insight for those who are not.
Though those who might actually want to know more about Ai Weiwei’s artistic practice and the work itself might need to look a little further afield (published in Dazed & Confused’s issue devoted to ‘Global Activism’, the focus here is far more clearly on the artist’s experiences as an activist), it offers a very immediate and intimate sense of the current situation for artists who choose not to toe the line in China. Sadly, contradicting all of the hope that changes to the economic landscape of China may bring new social freedoms, it gives a clear sense that the Chinese authorities are currently enacting hardening repression against China’s artistic communities at exactly the point at which their work is becoming increasingly known and visible in the international arena. Naturally, these two things are unlikely to be unconnected: the Chinese state has shown itself to be prepared to risk foreign disapproval for the ways in which it has brought it home to individuals and groups that have the ear of the international media that no one is untouchable.
It’s a sobering and serious reminder that what is frequently taken for granted in the affluent West or even enshrined in United Nations charters on human rights – such as the freedom of artistic expression- still remain luxuries that must be hard won for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the planet.