The thing about origins, is that we have to keep going back to them to make them them. Ala:
Ai Weiwei is back in the public eye, now more ponderous than ever. Namely, he’s provided sculptural view of his 80+ day detention in 2011, and they are on display at Venice Biennale under the title SACRED.
Which brings me to an imaginative exercise, brought about only slightly facetiously by voluminous and similarly placed facial hair. What of our own instances of unlawful detention? Would a mock-ups, beard and all, of Abdullah al-Kidd being interrogated by CIA officials do well as art in Venice? (al-Kidd was detained for 16 days in 2003 for attempting to fly to Saudi Arabia.) If the art was well done, I suppose, it might be picked up by some adventurous curator for global art events like the one now in Italy. But, would NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian cover them as they have Ai Weiwei’s exhibit? Obviously not. Part of the reason for that is of course that al-Kidd is not himself an artist, and therefore not eligible for artist as hero against ‘The Man’ narratives that we so readily go in for. The other reason is that al-Kidd was presumed to be a terrorist, and that just does not seem a topic worthy of reporting. Which of these two reasons is more important here I can’t say. Maybe they come out about equal.
Which brings me to Time Magazine. Last week featured a cover by Ai himself, and a report on contemporary China by Hannah Beech.
Ishaan Tharoor comments:
The consequences of China reclaiming its “rightful place” are far-reaching—a world driven by a Chinese consumer class, rather than an American one, would be already a very different place. But Beech charts the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower: its toxic environment, its awkward relations with wary neighbors, the iron-bound determination of Xi’s Communist Party to keep a stranglehold on power despite the growing frustrations of its restive population. China views itself as the Middle Kingdom, imbued with the mandate of 5,000 years of glorious history. But the rest of the world still sees a “foreign policy laggard,” preoccupied more by its insecurities than its strengths.
Ai’s image thereby accompanies a narrative of China’s rise coupled with the important exercise of putting China in its place. This concerted effort requires not only all the major media to partake, but just as importantly, a legitimate, dependable, valiant, brave, native, figure like Ai Weiwei to drive it all home. It must issue from numerous places at once (Time, London, Venice, etc), and fully interweave text and image, politics and culture, without ever disrupting the dominant view: China is rising, BUT…
Ai Weiwei fined 2,400,000.
(or is it “nearly 2,000,000?” –or is it 15 million yuan”)
So what’s up with everyone’s math? Is this such a difficult calculation that Huffington Post and Reuters can’t sort out what the $ equivalent of the 15,000,000 RMB fine is? Alas.
And anyway, I’ve been waiting for some time now to find out what this amount would be. One wonders how they came up with 15,000,000. In fact, one wonders how they would use it, if in fact he decides to pay it–basic infrastructure for Cao chang di 草场地? But mostly, one wonders what the impact will be on the artistic community at large, being the other Chinese artists (or is that, ALL Chinese artists?) suddenly wondering how much THEY owe in income taxes. As I’ve said before, this strikes me as more or less genius maneuver by the Chinese government, a play to make Ai into something like Bernie Madoff (in the eyes of less well-heeled Chinese populace).
or, a genius idea which seems to be backfiring badly. Ai’s microblog (a wonder that that’s still up) is taking in donations, and his Twitter is alive with the complicated issue (?) of whether he should take the money outright, or just accept a “loan”. The conversation on Twitter, anyway, clearly demonstrates that loan, gift, or what have you the contributor are taking their own action as a mode of protest. THe conversation is also keeping a running tally of donations (2.5 million as I type). Thus, Chinese government attempts to outsmart contemporary political dissent with crafty legal/economic maneuver and gets outmaneuvered by same dissent in the form of, of all things, a high-profile sympathy fund for the very individual they’re trying to shut down. There are times when I wonder if someone in Beijing isn’t playing this all to his/her own purpose, deliberately taking the wrong steps.
Regardless, its plain to see that post-incarceration Ai Weiwei continues to be just as much of a conduit for discussion of freedom of expression as ever. He is Art Politicized completely, even beautifully. No better example of that than in the image, NYT, below; if something so banal as a man going to pay his taxes can be so fraught with meaning, I’d say winner (Ai) takes all.
As has become my practice, when I’m impressed by NYT reporting on Chinese contemporary art, I try to make quick note of it. Such is the case with yesterday’s article by veteran art critic Holland Cotter, whose piece “An Artist Takes Role of China’s Conscience” contains the type of valuable view points often going absent in English-language reporting on, particularly, Ai Weiwei. The discussion of Ai’s 2007 “Fairytale,” for instance, is valuable to understanding Ai’s work in the 21st century. While Cotter’s concluding sentence of that particular paragraph, that “Overall, ‘Fairytale’ was not a winning picture of [Ai Weiwei's] homeland” may well have missed the point– I don’t believe that moving 1001 Chinese people to a small(ish) city in central Germany for a period of time was really meant to re-present “China,” and the fact that a Pulitzer prize winning art critic (Cotter) takes it to be so may well just drive home Ai’s point: the barriers between China and the West, not to mention artists and audiences (of various cultural, not to mention socio-economic backgrounds) are often hard if not impossible to transgress. Nonetheless, such background for Ai’s work is far superior to what we typically read in, among other places, the New York Times.
The difference is that Cotter writes with historical perspective, not only rightly situating Ai in context of the late 1970s when he first emerged as avant-garde artist, but also more broadly, as a “cultural type” in China, a literati official who directly challenges imperial authority and, it would appear, pays for it. The precedents for this position go way back, particularly at transition points (dynastic shifts) through which many an agitator has been fortunate to survive.
But most to the point is to be sure the present moment, firstly because Ai remains in detention, and following because the unveiling of his most recent work, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” is rapidly approaching. Thus begins the by now rather familiar stalemate between Chinese government officials and high-publicity event organizers who no doubt hope that Ai will be able to attend opening ceremony on May 2. Regardless of how that turns out, Cotter’s placement of the “Heads” in historical context of British and French destruction of Yuanming Yuan in 1860. This context, actually, is what we need to know about Ai and his work and demonstrates the continuing relevance of the New York Times to the discourse which surrounds it.
Blog composed 11.13.10. 1
To set the record straight:
The New York Times, on November 11, runs an editorial by KISHORE MAHBUBANI on Liu Xiaobo that voices succinctly and cogently another opinion. This reaffirms (in my mind at least) the function of the NYT as platform for dissemination of information about topics relating to contemporary China, particularly where politics are concerned.
Not that I would concur entirely with this particular view either, and critics Mahbubani’s view are abundant.
Ed Friedman, in a post to a Chinese-culture related list-serve, makes the following observations:
This is an old and long-discredited tune. The song is not about Deng’s
achievements or Bush’s crimes. The lyrics are: China will naturally evolve
into a democracy. Therefore anyone who tries to promote democracy stirs up the authoritarians and thereby delays democracy. As a result, the true
friends of democracy tomorrow are the enemies of democracy today.
(By the way, it is a fact that many parents in spring 1989 tried to talk
their children into leaving Tiananmen, saying that it was best to wait for
the old guard to die off and a new generation to rise. The old guard has
died off. China is not becoming more open, however.)
In reality, no government ever evolved into a democracy. None. Ever.
Authoritarians do not voluntarily abandon the political stage. Power does
not give way without a struggle.
It is, however, interesting to find Mahbubani arguing as if democracy were
a universal human good. I cannot remember him ever before doing that. Is
this a change of heart or a rhetorical tactic?
Nonetheless, Mahbubani articulates the possibility that awarding the Nobel Prize to Liu is counterproductive in terms of advancing democracy in China. The reason, if not already obvious enough, is that governments (like the people that comprise them?) are less inclined to substantive change if not compelled by outside pressure. Again, it seems a comparison is in order: when has “international pressure” had any impact on particularly domestic politics in the United States?
Hopefully, but not likely, a final observation on the issue. This is not the first time the Nobel Prize would rankle presiding governments, or even just the Chinese government (Dalai Lama). Although it is perhaps noteworthy that in a case like Nelson Mandela (1993), would be jointly awarded with F. Willem de Klerk, making the award a recognition of some actual peace among conflicting forces rather than the potential for peace. In Liu’s case, it would be useful if his intercourse with the Chinese government could result in something other than imprisonment and silence.