from the series “Finger”, B/W Print, Edition of 10, 51 x 61 cm / 90 x 127 cm
A full day of news, to be sure. As reported by Washington Post, and elsewhere, Ai Weiwei has been detained, his assistants questioned, his studio “examined” by authorities. The Daily Telegraph, just a few hours ago, is responding with “artist profile,” and all no doubt are anxiously awaiting word on his release. The hope is that as an artist with a Twitter following of 70,000 unduly rough treatment (indeed, “treatment” at all) would be strategically problematic. Scratch that, would be stupid.
But high intelligence is not, from my humble point of view, in evidence in this case. The effect of Ai’s detention is to raise his stature higher than Hu Jintao himself. In short, Ai status as celebrity just skyrocketed, all thanks to the very government which seeks to “control” him. No doubt, as Washington Post points out, his recent connection to the–from various governments’ point of view–dangerously diffuse “Jasmine Revolution” is enough to warrant the risk of making the man larger than life, so to speak.
Meanwhile, by uncanny contrast, the news as reported by Financial Times, from the Ullens sale comes in as follows:
A new record auction price for a Chinese contemporary artwork was set yesterday at a US$54.8m (£34m) sale at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaogang’s 1988 triptytch “Forever Lasting Love” was sold to a buyer over the telephone for HK$79 (US$10.1m; £6.3m), more than doubling its pre-sale estimate of HK$25-30m. It broke the previous record of HK$75m, set by Zeng Fanzhi’s canvas “Mask Series 1996 No 6”, auctioned in Hong Kong in 2008.
The way that these two pieces of news seem to at once reflect and also repel one another is quite indicative of contemporary Chinese art. The generation of Zhang Xiaogang and Ai Weiwei is blessed in many ways, possessed of power that is both political and financial, and typically curiously intertwined. These artists rule the market and command concern among the government authorities in ways that virtually no one else in China can. Still, at the end of the day, Ai loses his freedom, thus fathoming for the rest the line delimiting permissible dissent. Now that we all know, I do hope he can step away without major consequence.