In Ai Weiwei, the globalized contemporary art world has found its first true star.
No other artist from outside Western Europe and the U.S. has established such worldwide fame, so quickly. Now, for many, he has become its prisoner of conscience.
Internationally, his schedule of exhibitions continues to unfold. In London, two are set to open next month, one at the Lisson Gallery (May 13 to July 16), and another in the Somerset House courtyard (12 May to June 26). The artist has disappeared into the Kafkaesque black hole of the Chinese legal system.
Ai was arrested at Beijing Airport on April 3, and since then -- despite widespread expressions of concern from, among others, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- not a word has been heard from him. His family, it was reported by the BBC, still don’t know where he is, whether he has been charged with an offense or even whether he has been formally arrested.
On April 14, a state-backed publication in Hong Kong, the Wen Wei Po newspaper, stated that Ai was being investigated for tax evasion (crimes of bigamy and putting obscene images on the Internet also were mentioned).
“Ai Weiwei has had quite a good attitude in co-operating with the investigation and has begun to confess,” the report continued. Since then, nothing more has been heard about that.
My guess, on the basis of having met and talked with Ai last autumn, is that the long silence is the result of his refusal to “confess” to anything. He struck me as a formidable individual, and almost recklessly brave in his outspokenness about the Chinese political system. It seems likely that, given the chance, he would denounce what has happened to him in eloquent terms. That message immediately would be relayed around the world.
The longer this goes on, the more worrying it gets. Ai is 53. He suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, according to his wife. Two years ago, in August 2009, he was struck violently on the head by a Chinese policeman, one of several who burst into his hotel room in the early hours of the morning. He asked for identification, and that was the reply.
A month later, while installing an exhibition in Munich, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. On that occasion his life was saved by a German surgeon who carried out an emergency operation. Understandably, there are now fears for his well- being.
Can China just shrug off outrage about Ai and his fate? The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a symbol of China taking its proper place in the world community. Ai was crucial to that as he collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium.
It’s hard to believe Chinese participation at the 2011 Venice Biennale, which opens on June 4, could go ahead without protests unless Ai is released. That, too, would be symbolic -- of Chinese indifference to international opinion. As for Ai himself, the prospects look bleak. How can he be allowed to speak out again without an enormous loss of official face?
Here, though, is one declaration he would probably make if he could. Almost the last words he said in our conversation last year were about contemporary Chinese justice: “Nobody has any trust in the judicial system, because it’s not independent. It’s manipulated by the party.”
“Sunflower Seeds” by Ai Weiwei is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. The show runs through May 2 2011. It is part of the Unilever Series, an annual commission sponsored by Unilever Plc. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/unileverseries2010
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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