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Ai Weiwei; Ode to Freedom

Ai Weiwei, who lived in New York in the 80’s and 90’s, is back in a city he loves creating art. It’s a small miracle. Last I heard, his passport had been confiscated, he’d been in jail for 81 days without charge and emerged with a brain hemorrhage requiring surgery, his studio in Shanghai was shuttered, one of his assistants was still missing, and he’d been charged with alleged “tax evasion.”

Is an artist or a writer, by definition, a dissident in a still despotic China? It depends on the artist or the writer. Tow the line, if you can figure out what that line is, and you’ll be okay. Ai is bold, he would not be silenced. He wrote a blog and when that was shut down, he went on to Twitter. A 2000 exhibition in Shanghai was called the “Fuck Off Art Exhibition.”

At times Ai reminds me of a punk Michael Moore—part prankster, part provocateur, part performance artist. I will never forget a scene in “Never Sorry,” Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary about him. In the midst of a “citizens' investigation” of the earthquake in Yunnan Province in which thousands of children died in poorly constructed “tofu-dreg” school buildings (government corruption revealed), Ai sat down to dinner in the local village. The police were all around standing at attention, surveying, reporting, intimidating. Ai began to talk with them directly and invited them to share his meal. I was smitten; irreverence is powerful, especially when it is knowledgeable irreverence. Ai in the film: “We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.”

Once upon a time, Ai was in favor. Trained as an architect, he worked on the Beijing National Stadium. But having grown up in labor camps during the Cultural Revolution with his out- of- favor father, Ai Qing, a famous poet, he also knew the travails of dis-favor and exile. And might have been expecting the same for himself, or worse.

It is unclear why Ai’s passport was returned in 2015. He is now based in Berlin and traveling everywhere to mount exhibitions. He can walk his small son to school every morning and return home to a peaceful, undisturbed working day. He can create art without censorship. China’s loss, the world’s gain.

Now Ai is in New York at the invitation of the Public Art Fund creating installations throughout the city in celebration of the 65 million refugees wandering the world, or living in tents, or trying to breach the walls of sovereign nations that don’t want them to enter, including our own. As a refugee who has himself found refuge, Ai is giving back with this exhibition and a companion film called “Human Flow.” He traveled—freely—to more than twelve countries to get the story.

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