The Arrest of Ai Weiwei


Friday, April 15, 2011

Filmmaker Alison Klayman and artist Ai Weiwei (Ted Alcorn, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)

Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous artist, and an international celebrity.  But inside the country, the government would prefer he remain unknown.  While he's attracted Western headlines as a witty, trouble-making critic of the regime, he’s mostly been left alone by the authorities.  But in 2009, Ai was beaten by authorities as he tried to investigate its response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  And earlier this year, his brand new studio was suddenly bulldozed; he photographed and videotaped the destruction of the building and then declared it one of his greatest works of art.

Then last week, he was detained by authorities, accused of “economic crimes”; his whereabouts are unknown.  Apparently, his driver and accountant have also been detained and one of his protégés was arrested and sentenced to two years hard labor for attending a pro-democracy rally.

"It does seem like this is very connected to the so-called Jasmine Revolution and events in the Middle East," filmmaker Alison Klayman told Kurt Andersen of the recent crackdown.  "I think this is a case where it's the backdrop — the context — on which his activities fall that brought about the current state of affairs." Klayman has been filming a documentary about Ai Weiwei for the past three years and she says his work has always had a strong political component.  In response to what he felt was the government's inadequate response to the Sichuan earthquake, Ai created Remembering (2009) using children's backpacks to draw attention to the schoolchildren killed in the disaster.

This Sunday, supporters of Ai Weiwei will bring chairs and sit in front of Chinese embassies — a reference to Ai's installation Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs (2007). And despite Ai's disappearance, New York City and the arts group AW Asia still plan to unveil his piece of twelve oversize bronze sculptures of animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac outside the Plaza Hotel on May 2.

Mark Phillips

Watch Alison Klayman's Frontline segment "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?"

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.


Slideshow: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Artist Ai Weiwei, surrounded by police, in a Chengdu hotel elevator in August 2009.  Ai took this photo with his camera phone, shortly after local police entered his hotel room and beat him.  He was in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to support a local activist challenging the Chinese government’s handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

A month after being beaten by police in Chengdu, Ai Weiwei was rushed to a hospital in Munich, where he was attending an exhibition.  Doctors performed emergency surgery to drain blood from his brain, reporting that he would have died without the procedure.

Ai is perhaps best known in the West for his work on the design of China’s “Bird's Nest” Olympic Stadium.  However, he distanced himself from the project prior to the 2008 games, accusing the Chinese government of using art as propaganda, distracting attention from the country’s “disgusting” political conditions.

Ai Weiwei at his desk, with a list of the names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake posted on the wall in front of him and to his left. Ai criticized the Chinese government for not having provided a full accounting of the schoolchildren's deaths, which many blamed on poorly-constructed schools. He posted the names of nearly all the child victims on his blog, but each time he published them, the articles “disappeared.”

Ai Weiwei’s installation Remembering (2009) covers the exterior of the Haus der Kunst (House of Art) in Munich.  Remembering is 100 meters long and 10 meters high, comprised of 9000 backpacks intended to evoke the schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake.  They are arranged to spell out “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” a quote from a mother who lost her child in the earthquake.

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Alison Klayman

Produced by:

Mark Phillips

Comments [3]

Kate Heyhoe from Austin, Texas

Since his disappearance, Ai's forced silence has been deafening. Alison's film captures the courage of this unique artist. Here's an image of my own art piece that pays homage to Ai, and the description of the events that inspired it reveals some of Ai's spirit:

Ai Weiwei Abacus (a collage by Kate Heyhoe)

The word for crab in Chinese is "hexie" which is also a homonym for "harmony"—government code for censorship (as in, let us all live in harmony, without dissent). When the government decided to bulldoze the Shanghai studio of world famous artist and activist Ai Weiwei, he invited artists and followers to attend the razing, and feast on a banquet of river crabs. Hence the crabs on this piece, some spelling out 258 FAKE, the name of Ai's main design studio in Beijing.
The Chinese government has a love/hate relationship with Ai. In 2010, they gave him land to build a studio in Shanghai. Ai was wary but he indeed built a studio. Just as it was finished, the government notified him they were going to destroy it. Ai emailed and twittered artists and followers to join him for a feast at the scheduled destruction, the studio's first and last art piece.
"For food, he would serve river crabs, a politically loaded entrée that sounds like the Mandarin word for 'harmony'—the government's term for a society that is free of dissent. Word spread online and, by the eve of the party, Ai was poised for a mini Woodstock. Then he was placed under house arrest in Beijing. The party went on without him." (New Yorker Magazine, Jan 12, 2011, by Evan Osnos)

Ai Weiwei was again arrested on April 3, 2011 and his studio ransacked by Chinese authorities. His assistants were also apprehended and "disappeared." Trumped up charges by the government include tax evasion (symbolized by the abacus in this piece). A month later, he still has not been heard from and his location remains secret. Major museums, state departments, and human rights groups have called for his immediate release. In the past, he has been beaten by Chinese police and almost died from his injuries.

The photo in the piece is a black and white print out of a poster circulated on the Internet, and designed by the design firm map office. It resembles a mug shot or wanted poster, one you might see on a post office wall or wooden fence.
Ai's sunflower seed installation sold at the Tate in London for $500K. TIME lists him among their 100 most influential people of 2011. Google Ai Weiwei to find out more and see his art (including the Bird's Nest stadium for the Chinese Olympics, and his installation about the "nameless" children killed in the Chinese earthquake, featuring children's backpacks).

May. 09 2011 12:21 AM
Lauren Kientz Anderson from Lexington, KY

I'm planning a year of events related to China at the University of Kentucky. (You can see what we did this year for South Africa here: After hearing this episode, I'm trying to get the film to screen in Lexington in October. Cross your fingers for me!

Apr. 25 2011 10:31 AM

My Thoughts. “Ai Weiwei-Freedom 2”. Art, image.

Apr. 21 2011 10:12 AM

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