Update Ai Weiwei: Forty Day Imprisonment in China and Counting

Ai Weiwei in Tiananmen Square in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
(Image source: Randomculture)
This past week the news concerning Ai Weiwei’s continued imprisonment by Chinese authorities took on a very disturbing tone. With his detention moving beyond the critical thirty day mark—a maximum time for similar detentions of this kind-- Ai’s 78 year old mother Gao Ying spoke out in an interview with CBC news expressing her fears and mounting concerns about the state of her son’s mental and physical condition. With allegations of torture and fear that the artist may be forced towards some measure of confession, the entire incident has reached a new and urgent impasse. When asked why her son was targeted, Ying responded:

"I think in reality, he was taken because he was protecting the rights of ordinary citizens and speaking for them. With many things that happened, he just had to speak out-he said a lot, criticizing the government for not abiding by the rule of law in dealing with certain incidents. He wanted to speak for ordinary citizens, he wanted (people) to be responsible for lives, and he wanted to find a solution so that this would not happen in the future. His goal was not to go against his country. He wants this country to develop on a healthy path. I think because of this, he offended people in power and they hate him, so now they are looking for an opportunity to take him down-this what I believe."

(image source: Reuters)
Art institutions around the world have continued to dedicate special shows in the artist’s honour. Most notably this week, the sculptor Anish Kapoor dedicated his largest art work ever—an installation sculpture set to open at the Paris Monumenta exhibition called Leviathan—to the missing artist. Several incidents of art activism and consciousness raising have also taken place via street art interventions, and the high profile action of British protester Charlotte Eaton, who walked naked across the Turbine Hall sunflower exhibit with the words “thank you Ai Weiwei” and “freedom” painted on her body, kept the news in the mainstream press. A wonderful set of YouTube videos even made the rounds of art students at the Tate who collectively jumped the barrier to play in the seeds that had been deemed too unsafe to disturb (see video below). U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton even took the bold step (finally) to publicly question the Beijing authority’s human rights record, referring directly to the Ai Weiwei detention.

But what really caught my attention amidst the continued discussion and call for protest was an eloquently written op-ed piece by author Salman Rushdie that has been circulating widely after its intitial publication in The Telegraph a few weeks back. In the essay, Rushdie—a man who became the flashpoint for similar calls to protest following the death threats made against him by the leader of Iran upon the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988—positions Ai Weiwei’s current situation in a much wider context, reminding all of us of the stakes involved:

"The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus Caesar to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis. He spent the rest of his days begging to be allowed to return to Rome. So Ovid’s life was blighted. But the poetry of Ovid has outlasted the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam was murdered by Stalin’s executioners, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived Franco’s tyrannical regime. We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight….

When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, such figures as Ai Weiwei and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak the truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the USSR. Today China’s government has become the world’s biggest threat to freedom of speech, so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo."

  • freeaiweiwei.org continues to provide daily updates about the artist’s disappearance.

See the following YouTube clip for another excerpt released by the Tate from its series of conversations with Ai Weiwei: