Its Not About Human Rights? or, its not even about Ai Weiwei

Looking at two pieces of news this morning, I find myself wondering the following: did Ai really sacrifice himself to what he must have known would be a largely stubborn butting of heads of two major establishments, one in China (CCP) and one in the West (various media)?  The two sides are far apart, but nonetheless demonstrate a strikingly similar degree of unwillingness to entertain subtlety.

A China Daily editorial

“The Ai Weiwei case, in essence, is not a human rights matter, nor is it about freedom of speech. No one is above the law. Just like in other countries, acts of violations of the law will be dealt with by the law,” the embassy wrote in the letter, carried in the English-language China Daily.

“Art is thriving in China. One can find art in all its forms and genres in China, from classical to post-modern, from Chinese to Western, from realism to abstract art,” it wrote.

The Chinese authorities have given few details of what exactly Ai is being investigated for.

Earlier this month, a Hong Kong newspaper under Beijing control said police had firm evidence he avoided tax.

In a sign of the sensitivity for Beijing, a Hong Kong-based rights group said on Thursday that a Chinese rock musician had been briefly detained by police after voicing support for Ai.

“It is natural for China and Western countries to see human rights and democracy differently given their different historical and cultural traditions and national circumstances,” the letter said.

“China is not the former Soviet Union. China has no need for ‘lecturers’, who cling to the Cold War mentality and follow double standards in their preachings.”

And following, an article by Jerome Cohen that appeared in the South China Morning Post, which I paste here in its entirety:

Despite public scrutiny, Chinese police continue to violate criminal justice
standards in Ai Weiwei¹s case, writes Jerome A. Cohen
Out of reach
By Jerome A. Cohen

It is now 24 days since artist-activist Ai Weiwei¹s detention by Beijing
police. Yet foreign media interest has not flagged, despite the silence of
the Chinese legal system and Chinese government efforts to manipulate
information. Ai¹s family still has not received the ordinarily required
notice of detention telling where he is detained and why.

There has been no attempt by police to justify this failure on the only
ground permitted by law  that such notice ³might hinder their
investigation². Nor have the police claimed that Ai¹s case falls within the
narrow exceptions prescribed by law for extending a detained suspect¹s
detention beyond seven days without their seeking prosecutors¹ approval.

Ai¹s would-be legal advisers should have been permitted to meet him weeks
ago, right after detention. That is what the law requires except when the
police declare that the case involves ³state secrets², which they have not.
Yet police intimidation appears to prevent access to counsel even now. One
lawyer was himself illegally ³abducted² for several days after his
discussions with Ai¹s family. The other, by keeping himself incommunicado,
has thus far avoided the abduction, prosecution or illegal house arrest that
so many other human rights lawyers have recently suffered.

Without active defence counsel, there is no hope of making police and their
thugs accountable to other officials, including prosecutors, judges or
legislators, not to mention the public. Although in ordinary cases even
Communist Party leaders may have difficulty controlling local police, in
prominent cases such as Ai¹s one can assume that police follow high-level
party instructions.

Meanwhile, Ai¹s family and friends have sought to interpret and refute
whatever vague allegations Chinese officials have unfairly leaked to the
press in their efforts to diminish the strong condemnations by foreign
governments, media, and art and human rights groups that the case has
aroused. An early commentary in the party-controlled Global Times seemed to
confirm the widespread belief that Ai is being punished for his increasingly
daring public challenges to the party¹s arbitrary rule and restrictions of
freedom. This was soon overtaken by a report in the communist-connected Wen
Wei Po claiming that Ai was being investigated for ³economic crimes², bigamy
and pornography and that he ³has begun to confess².

The official Xinhua news agency confirmed that the investigation was
focusing on unspecified ³economic crimes², as did the spokesperson for the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a subsequent press conference. Although 10 of
the 18 questions asked at the press conference were about Ai, the answers
yielded little but were nevertheless entirely omitted from the official
transcript. A later Xinhua dispatch embarrassingly accused Ai of plagiarism
without checking its facts.

Since then, we have been treated to a broad range of rumours and
speculation. The most sensational, purporting to come from a disaffected
Xinhua journalist, claimed that, after having been tortured and shown a
video of the even more terrible police abuse of the courageous and long
³disappeared² lawyer Gao Zhisheng, Ai confessed to tax violations in order
to escape Gao¹s fate. Another report, from a foreign source close to certain
Chinese officials, suggested that Ai may yet be investigated for involvement
in one of Shanghai¹s many illegal land transactions.

Only three things can safely be said at this non-transparent juncture, as we
await the crucial decision on whether Ai will be formally arrested. One is
that the investigation now is indeed focusing on possible income tax
violations. Although we do not know why the police continue to detain Ai¹s
associate, former journalist Wen Tao, and probably several other employees,
we know that staff members, Ai¹s accountant, his business partners and his
wife were interrogated by tax officials as well as police.

Second, it also seems clear that, whatever the evidence being assembled
about tax evasion or other charges, this was not the motivation for Ai¹s
detention. This case started out on a ³detain first and look for
justification later² basis. If evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction
is found, the case will become a pre- eminent example of what criminal
justice experts call ³selective prosecution². Ai has been singled out from a
large number of potentially suspected offenders not because of the magnitude
of any alleged economic crimes, but because of his creative and eye-catching
political challenges to the regime and his defence of human rights.

Although China is rife with economic crimes that reach the highest rungs of
party, government and courts, the decision whether to detain and investigate
someone suspected of such crimes is often a political act that is influenced
by more than legal considerations. This is true to some extent in most
countries, but China¹s situation is extreme.

The business and tax activities of Chinese leaders and their families are
insulated from criminal investigation unless a leader loses a major power
struggle. So, too, are the activities of many business executives unless
they cross the politically powerful. In the rare instances when favoured
executives are caught in tax offences, they sometimes avoid detention and
criminal conviction, even if they had failed to pay huge amounts of tax;
they are quietly allowed to settle their liability by paying at least a
portion of what the tax authorities claim, plus an occasional fine. Thus,
even if the police find significant valid evidence against Ai, there would
be a precedent for terminating the investigation on a similar basis and
releasing him.

Finally, however the investigation of this case ends, it has already
demonstrated once again how China¹s police do not adhere not only to the
standards of fair criminal justice enshrined in the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights, which the Chinese government signed in 1998
but has yet to ratify, but also to their own country¹s criminal procedure

If a famous figure like Ai can be so blatantly abused in the glare of
publicity, what protections do ordinary Chinese citizens receive from their

Cohen’s analysis is of course solid, if we take the position that organizations such as the US-Asia Law Institute (at New York University Law School) are in the business of helping China figure out how to write and execute its own legal procedures.  From the looks of it, the Chinese are not taking such advice, nor do admonishments by various major news organizations lead to anything but entrenchment of Chinese “policy,” such as it is.  Which leads me back to previous question: did Ai have this all in mind when he toyed with, if not deliberately, crossed the line?

Inviting girls over to the studio to get naked….

(I guess I’m gradually learning ways of the provocateur)

Ok, so he invites guys over as well. and getting naked is not the whole point. But recently, a post appeared concerning “流氓燕” (“Rogue Yan”), the most prominent of the four women who appear with Ai in nude photograph below.  The image has now acquired the title “One Tiger with 8 Breasts”


This blog post describes Yan’s first visit to Ai’s studio, and the decision to undress with him for the camera. This, as referenced in my previous post, is a long-standing practice for Ai, and one that continues.  In this case, in addition to Liumang Yan, there are two “college girls” (on left of image), and all described as “online friends” 网友.  Somewhat extraordinary (to me, at least), is Yan’s contention that this action constitutes the expression the power of the “new woman” (新生代女性力量).

Image from ___

How one man surrounded by 4 naked women is either new or an expression of their power precisely somehow eludes me as a concept, but good enough for the blogosphere.  Regardless, two observations about the image: 1. this is a patently chaste activity, one which also (and unlike the New York photo perhaps) provides  a good illustration of the beauty of the human form in all its peculiar particularity.  Next, and to the surprise of those who have labored at somewhat incredible length about the “meaning” of the image (Liumang Yan as brocade-wearing symbol of bourgeoise, glasses-wearing college student as intellectual class, Ai, in center 中央, covering his “real purpose,” etc), I’d say this looks like a few people who took off their clothes and snapped a photo, much in the tradition that Ai has established over the past going on 30 years.  A companion image moreover catches the atmosphere of the shoot:

Only this one (of lowest quality and badly edited) shows a degree of challenge in its nudity:


Liumang Yan’s expression in this image is a good backdrop to her very emphatic support for Ai in all of his endeavors.  At the moment, of course, we’re all just hoping he will be released soon.

Ai Weiwei the Performance Artist


photo from LA Times, April 18

If this is performance art, then it is remarkably successful. By contrast, the earlier attempt to leave China to attend Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel ceremony was met with polite, if apathetic, refusal (discussed in December, 2010 post to this blog). This trip to the airport, leading to his arrest, was a replay of that scene, but with a different result, and it was, I begin to believe, the intended result.  With this arrest, Ai has opened the curtain on the stage of opinion, turned the lights on and made fully global political theatre a possibility.

The discussion of the event, though, remains to my mind largely banal.  Take for instance a recent article by Lionel M. Jensen containing the following observations:

When asked about his own well-being, he expressed concern about the latest campaign against free expression. He spoke with anguish about recurring nightmares of incarceration in which tourists blankly walked around the spectacle as though it was an exhibit. “They saw everything but didn’t care…they simply acted as though this was quite normal… we live in a world of madness.”

The proximate reason for the interview was indeed an exhibit, a real one in Beijing that marked the grand reopening of the renovated Chinese National Museum on Tian’anmen Square. A high-level German delegation led by the outgoing foreign minister Guido Westerwelle was to be in Beijing on April 1 to celebrate the opening of a very prominent German exhibit, Die Kunst der Aufklärung (“Art of the Enlightenment”), with nearly six hundred objects from the State Art Collections of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich.

When asked specifically about the upcoming exhibit and its theme Ai noted the profound irony that the sanctity of individual and conscience, freedom of expression within a civil society were Enlightenment values brought, as in the transport of the exhibit itself, from the West, but that China’s own government had yet to accept them in practice. Ai had been informed that he could not appear at the opening.

Here the allegiances with civil society, with Enlightenment, in short, a kind of establishment West (even if a fantasized one), are hard to ignore.  That the Chinese government should want to implement German Enlightenment values reflects the kind of cultural chauvinism that riles the tempers of far more Chinese than just those in charge of managing (and there is clearly management) China’s cultural discourse.  (I wonder if Chinese exhibition organizers even were aware that the 600 or so works of art associated with the the exhibition were to be used as study objects for the transformation of Chinese society.) Regardless, the global image of an heroic, self-sacrificing cultural crusader is well underway, from the demonstrations (above), to the documentary, soon to be released.

What is strong in Ai’s performance as an artist is in his power to stimulate reflection, with often succinct and often clever maneuvers (think of Han Dynasty urns falling to their death).

What we are seeing now in global (English-language) media is anything but reflective.  It is, to my mind, akin to the flipping of a switch on a stage, or perhaps even a musical cue, something mechanical, and long-before planned out by the creator of this particular theatrical event.  With the auteur having departed the building, though, the question does become when (and how) the play resolves.

Ai Weiwei–the naked truth

Ai’s nude pictures are well known.  The series has been ongoing, with famous leaping poses being, according to The Australian, perhaps a major factor in leading to his arrest. (To be clear, not the offense of nudity, but the “fuck your mother” suggestion which is implicit in the presence of the toy horse held in front of his privates.)

Given the perhaps not-so subtle message of the previous, the following, more recent in-company-of-others work is certainly intriguing.  Any opinions concerning how we might read this image are most welcome.

For the full longevity of the naked series, though, we can go further back, to Manhattan of the 1980s, where it would appear Ai first started his practice of stripping down and posing for a camera.  In this case he is clearly at risk of arrest, and it seems gleefully so.  According to Yan Li, (with whom he is pictured), this was typical of Ai’s state of mind at the time, irreverent, wild, reckless:

(image courtesy of Yan Li, published also in 事务是他们自己的象征 (Edited by Norman Spencer, 2005)

Cumulatively, we get a picture of the man, so to speak, which reveals a consistent, even obsessive tendency to expose himself. This returns me to an earlier post wherein I question the boundaries of art, activism, self-promotion, particularly for a globalized artist like Ai.  Ai is a self-proclaimed Andy Worhol enthusiast, and there is indeed a Worhol-esque quality to the play which seems constantly at work in these images and elsewhere.  But the political seriousness of these antics, which have now either come to fruition or come to claim their price (his freedom) depending on point of view, is not at all like Worhol.  What strikes me most about Ai in the buff over time is how little the strategies have changed.

Ai charged with “economic crimes,” Wu Yuren released

Wu Yuren has been released, after nearly one year in prison, and roughly at the moment that Ai was incarcerated.  Since then, Ai has been formally charged with “economic crimes” and the establishment art media in the United States has been circulating a petition (with, at last check, over 7,000 signatories) for his release. Petition content:

On April 3, internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong, and his papers and computers were seized from his studio compound.

We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to “soft power” and cultural influence.

Our institutions have some of the largest online museum communities in the world. We have launched this online petition to our collective millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers.  By using Ai Weiwei’s favored medium of “social sculpture,” we hope to hasten the release of our visionary friend.

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art
Michael Govan, Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Kaywin Feldman, President, Association of Art Museum Directors and Director and President, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Glenn Lowry, Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Yongwoo Lee, President, The Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Vishakha Desai, President and Melissa Chiu, Vice President of Global Arts, Asia Society
Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate and Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern




Richard Armstrong  古根汉姆美术馆 馆长
Alexandra Munroe   古根汉姆美术馆 资深策展人
Michael Govan 洛杉矶美术馆 馆长
Kaywin Feldman 美国博物馆协会暨明尼阿波利斯美术馆 总裁
Glenn Lowry 纽约当代美术馆 馆长
Yongwoo Lee 光州双年展基金会 总裁
Vishakha Desai 亚洲协会  总裁
Melissa Chiu 亚洲协会 全球艺术项目 副总裁
Sir Nicholas Serota 泰德美术馆  馆长

The effect of such a petition, particularly if it is signed by a large number of individuals, will be to make Ai the figurehead, one man facing off with the central government, the type of narrative which excites (Western) global media.  Meanwhile, there are suggestions that such excitement may well be counter-productive.  Lucas Klein, of the City University of Hong Kong, makes some important observations (on MCLC listserve) with regard to Ai’s arrest:

Actually, I think China does have oil. But perhaps not enough of it to

More to the point (that is, would sanctions actually seed change?), given
that Western corporations would agree to the heightened labor costs and
closed market that would result in pulling out from China (which they
wouldn’t, obviously), the PRC government has been very good at spinning any
criticism of its policies as Western imperialist attacks on an essential
Chineseness. No doubt some in the West are motivated by a desire to keep
China down and white people up, but usually they’re not the ones advocating
for more personal and social freedoms or less inequality, for anyone. At any
rate, we seem to be at a historical impasse where “engagement” gives the
current Chinese government legitimacy, but sanctions would give it
legitimacy, too.

However, I heard that Ai Weiwei had complained about foreign reporters
always looking to him as a symbol of resistance or criticism. The more they
focused on him, he seemed to be saying, the more they enabled the government
to see opposition to the government as an individual, rather than group,
issue–and now he pays the price for it (an “economic crime” of its own, I
suppose). Assuming he did say such a thing, I think he’s got to be right:
the US press, at least, seems to have a vested interest in individualism
(consider “Tank Man,” and consider that the west has not learned the lesson
that, no matter how brave or noble, an individual alone cannot stop an
army), but in making anyone an individual hero, they also reduce the
possibilities for collective action.


Lucas has got a point.

Ai Weiwei New York Time


AW Asia

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.

The News Today–Ai Weiwei and the rest

from the series “Finger”, B/W Print, Edition of 10, 51 x 61 cm / 90 x 127 cm

at Artfacts

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 KongZhang 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.