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Ai Weiwei; Ode to Freedom

Ai Weiwei: "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" in Washington Square Park. The installation sits under the arch. Some members of the community objected that there would be no Christmas tree this year. Photo by Carol Bergman
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.  Read More 
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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry http://aiweiweineversorry.com/

I went to a screening last night of Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei, the defiant Chinese artist who disappeared into police custody for 81 days in 2011, and survived torture to continue his work and his political/artistic activity, traveling abroad for exhibitions and creating art within China in his large studio in Beijing. (His studio in Shanghai has been demolished by the government.)

As I write, Weiwei has been slapped with a $15 million tax bill and is suing the Chinese government. In other words, he has not been silenced. When his blog was shut down, he started using Twitter. He twitters constantly, using images and words. He has thousands of followers inside China and around the world. The twitters are a thread of distilled wisdoms and observations, and, eventually, they will become history. Here is his Twitter address: https://twitter.com/aiwwenglish/. The Twitter site may also be shut down—it looks a bit strange today as I write—and Weiwei may have moved to Tumblr.

The documentary called “Never Sorry,” soon to be released in the U.S., is riveting from beginning to end, as is Ai Weiwei himself, a free spirit, who reminds me of Michael Moore. He even looks like Michael Moore with his big belly, impish smile, quick wry wit, and courage. I thought it was interesting that Weiwei had lived in the U.S. from 1983-1993. During that formative decade, he had studied art and embraced both intellectual and artistic freedom. Once in your heart, he has said, freedom is there forever.

When asked by Ms. Klayman, who lived in China as a journalist from 2006-2010 and speaks Mandarin, where he finds his courage, Weiwei explains that he is actually very afraid because he knows full well the possible consequences of his actions and his art, which are inseparable for him. Therefore, he continues, he must be courageous, otherwise he will be overwhelmed with fear. And though we live in a free society, Michael Moore has also had to endure threats to his life—not incarceration or torture, but death threats all the same.

Because I am a writer with a “troublesome conscience,”—a phrase I picked up this morning while reading a bio of Theodore Roosevelt (it described TR’s father), I’ve been very concerned about the harassed and incarcerated artists, writers and dissidents in China and wonder when, if ever, the despotic regime will change their ways, or if they ever will, or what we can do here in the west—other than sign petitions and send letters—to support the persecuted artists, writers and dissidents. Is it better to boycott or to engage? Do we study the example of apartheid, or the Soviet Empire, or Iran? Can anything we do, or don’t do, change the outcome?

My book, "Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories," with a foreword by humanitarian activist, John le Carré, is soon to be reprinted in China for the second time using a simplified alphabet. During negotiations for its first Chinese edition, I was concerned about the translation: Would the text be censored in any way? I was assured it would not. That was more than five years ago. My concern has not abated for this second Chinese edition as the book, by definition, is subversive. The stories therein are, in part, about the problems relief workers have on the ground in war zones and despotic regimes. And China is a despotic regime. So what, if anything, do they make of the book, and will it reach an audience in China?

On the way home last night, I traveled with a friend who works for a humanitarian organization, and we chatted about the film and how inspiring it was. When we got to the train station, there’d been a power outage, so we had to take a bus. Two young Chinese students, in New York for a three week management course at Columbia University, were waiting at the stop, and we began chatting. One spoke English well, the other didn’t. One had heard of Ai Weiwei, the other did not know who he was. The young woman who knew of him said that he was very different, not like the usual artist in China. Was she pleased? I wasn't sure.  Read More 
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