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This was posted before...somewhere... but it bears repeating...|
Detained: Ai Weiwei, Con Artist
Post Categories: Editorial Column
By Yoichi Shimatzu | 11:40 BeiJing Time,Monday, April 11, 2011
BEIJING - Anger is essential to the modern Chinese male character, which is so strikingly "un-Asian" compared with, say, a Japanese with his cool dispassion toward lethal risks or the Thai with his elegant aesthetic of combat as a dance to the death. On the streets of Beijing, it's not uncommon to see a burly bloke belly-bump a police officer while bellowing vulgarities. In most places, it's the cops who bully the civilians; only in China is it the other way around.
The recently detained artist Ai Weiwei is an exponent of the macho gesture, Beijing-style. His life work is a rendering of the rude shove, the slamming door, spit and cigarette butts on polished marble floors and tussles in the subway. The leitmotif of one of his art series is the middle figure superimposed over images of China's national monuments. Like the enraged man on the street, the artist brutalizes symbols of authority.
Surprisingly, his recent arrest at Beijing's airport while trying to board an overseas flight did not stem from his controversial art, radical political views or an assault complaint but was related to a drab and dreary case of financial irregularities involving his new Shanghai studio. Though to his ardent supporters the charges may look like a set-up by the police, Shanghai is rife with commercial scams related to land and zoning codes. Details of the case are by law kept from media release until conviction, and Ai Weiwei himself has never provided answers to the charges, choosing instead to make counter-accusations of political persecution.
Ai Weiwei's alleged violation of property regulations, like the myriad of other less-publicized cases in Shanghai, has its origins in those heady days when the municipality was led by municipal party chief Chen Liangyu, who has since been arrested for embezzlement and property fraud. Chen wooed anyone in the cultural field who had connections with the West in the drive to win approval for the city's bid for a World Expo. Often Chen took personal charge by inviting a guest to a private dinner, such as one this author sat in on, to promise that a successful effort to bring over cultural heavyweights from the U.S. and Europe would be rewarded generously.
In 2000, Ai Weiwei, who had studied at Parsons School of Design and familiar figure in New York's avant garde art scene, was invited to curate a group show in Shanghai. His radical anti-authoritarian opinions were received with enthusiasm by Chen's cultural circle, which included neo-conservative critics of the Cultural Revolution, who in an earlier era would have been deemed capitalist roaders. The city gates were flung open, and the artist got his pick of real estate.
A series of property scandals, triggered by mass evictions of long-time residents, eventually led to the arrest of Chen and his associates. Land titles transferred under hi0s regime have since been reviewed, and hundreds of prosecution cases filed. Ai Weiwei's new studio, which was among the questionable properties was torn down like many other illegal structures. There's nothing extraordinary about this sort of corruption, except for its politicized defense by Ai Weiwei and his foreign sponsors, including the American ambassador to China.
As the Shanghai case illustrates, Ai Weiwei is not only an artist, architect, filmmaker, curator, social critic and dissenter, he is also a low-end property developer with an apparently sloppy ledger book, rife with shady accounting practices. To some he's a great artistic talent, but as a businessman he's known for skirting the rules. His loosely administered property dealings have long raised eyebrows among academic artists and municipal officials in Beijing.
Now, as the hidden associations with Shanghai's boss, who abused political power to evict thousands of residents from their homes, come out, the truth is blowing apart Ai Weiwei's phony "anti-corruption" crusade. No wonder he keeps his fat mouth shut about the sordid details.
Whatever his claims of political persecution, the fact is that Chinese authorities have shown nearly infinite latitude toward this artistic maverick and social rebel. Their muted acceptance of his barrage of insults illustrates how, at the gut level, the Chinese are more democratic than their ultra-polite and class-conscious peers in Japan, Thailand and India.
Across the entire continent, there is no artist who can come close to Ai Weiwei in outrageousness, as expressed in 2000 with a group exhibition that he co-curated titled "F--k Off". His publicity materials used all four letters. There are cities in America and Europe where you couldn't get away with printing the offensive word on posters and flyers. Just imagine the reaction to such an arts event in Karachi or Riyadh. So freedom of expression in China is a lot safer than in many other parts of the world.
Despite his hatred of authority, Ai Weiwei is no inner-city plebe or impoverished peasant but one of the princelings born to privilege. In his youth, he experienced hardship and poverty not as a commoner but as the son of a once high-ranking cultural official. His father Jiang Zhenghan, a poet who took the pen name Ai Qing, was purged from the Communist Party in 1957 during the anti-rightist movement and exiled to the hinterlands of Xinjiang Province.
Ai Weiwei's memories of banishment are captured in his installation, "Sunflower Seeds" at London's Tate Museum. Piled across the floor of the .turbine room are 100 million porcelain seeds, each handmade in China. Art critics have interpreted the tear-shaped pebbles as an analogy of mass production, exploitation of sweatshop labor, the persistence of individualism in a collective society and the pointlessness of China's national objectives. The artist stated in simpler terms: "In China, when we grew up, we had nothing . . . but for even the poorest people, the treat or the treasure we'd have would be the sunflower seeds in everybody's pockets."
Under his original conception - later canceled by curators due to the health risks of ceramic dust - museum-goers were encouraged to walk over the fragile seeds, crushing them. Such is the fate of the multitude doomed never to sprout, grow and blossom, these who in their millions end up as empty husks strewn over train platforms and under the tables of beer swillers.
That bleak outlook, sadly, is Ai Weiwei's view of human existence as sterile, stunted and futile. These are not the fields of yellow blossoms humming with bees in the Xinjiang sunlight, which he saw as a boy in western China, nor the bouquets of Van Gogh cut off from their roots yet pulsating with energy.