Ai Weiwei: Can an artist change society?

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's provocative work spotlights human rights and pushes government boundaries.

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    Chinese artist Ai Weiwei interacted with his work ‘Sunflower Seeds’at London’s Tate Modern gallery last fall.
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In a video smuggled to a recent TED conference (which he was forbidden to attend) Chinese artist Ai Weiwei insisted, "Art is about social change." Apparently, the potential for change spearheaded by China's most celebrated global art star troubles China's leaders. On April 3 authorities seized Mr. Ai, who disappeared into a news blackout illuminated only by vague allegations of "economic crimes."

Although a show of his art has been "indefinitely postponed" in the People's Republic of China, a public art piece by Ai, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," is on view at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue from May 4 to July 15. "It's a piece that resonates on lots of different levels," according to Kate Levin, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Consisting of 12 four-foot-high bronze animal heads, it's a replica of an 18th-century water clock at the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing. While the tiger, rabbit, and monkey heads may seem like whimsical carousel characters, the background of the originals adds complexity and ambiguity.

Ai, Ms. Levin says, "is inviting people to think in an informed, engaged way about history," and this piece has "a number of rich and painful associations," since the originals were hauled off by European looters in 1860.

Recommended: Five famous jailed dissidents in China: Ai Weiwei to Liu Xiaobo

Considered iconic pieces of the nation's cultural heritage, their repatriation is a cause célèbre in China.

Setting up a dialogue between past and present, authentic and fake, is typical of Ai's work, according to Alexandra Munroe, senior Asian Art curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. With "Zodiac Heads," Ms. Munroe says, "the critique is aimed at the West, not at China."

Whether people know the back story of this piece or not, the value of public art, Levin says, is that it makes "people look at familiar spaces with fresh eyes."

Ai has been spurring people to look at cyberspace with unblinkered eyes ever since he began blogging in 2005. Although the Communist Party censors dissident views, Ai leaped "the Great Firewall" in his writings until 2009 when his blog was shut down.

In more than 2,700 posts, Ai increasingly criticized the government, calling for freedom of speech and unfettered information. Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator at London's Serpentine Gallery, calls the blog "one of the greatest social sculptures of our time."

Since official media in China present a sanitized view of reality conducive to the authorities' desire to ensure social harmony, stability, and continued economic progress, the Internet is the only outlet for alternative views.

"His art truly serves the people," says Lee Ambrozy, whose book "Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009" has just been published by MIT Press. The blog gradually became "more daring and inflammatory," Ms. Ambrozy says, and was widely accessible, reaching all corners of the nation, which made it "a troublesome issue for the central government."

Ai's audacity in calling the regime to account "is absolutely in his blood," Munroe explains. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet and standard-bearer of the Communist Revolution. But in 1957 he ran afoul of party orthodoxy and was declared an enemy of the people, sent to the Gobi Desert, and forced to clean public latrines for "reeducation."

Ai Weiwei remembers the hardship of 20 years in exile, where the family literally made their own bricks to construct their dwelling in an earthen pit.

Although the family was declared "rehabilitated" in 1976 and allowed to return to Beijing after Mao Zedong's death, Ai left for New York in 1981 seeking freedom. When he returned to China in 1993, he introduced conceptual art, such as his 1994 Coca-Cola urn, where he painted the corporate logo on a Han Dynasty urn, a slap at globalization.

China's pride in Ai's international reputation turned sour when he called for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics, which he termed "a fake smile China is putting on for the rest of the world." Even though he'd helped design the National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest"), he decried the hoopla of the Games as disguising the regime's greed and repression.

When the 2008 earthquake struck Sichuan Province, killing 70,000, Ai changed from a prankster/provocateur to a cyberactivist. He launched a "citizen investigation" via his blog, recruiting hundreds of volunteers to collect names of children who died when their schools collapsed due to flimsy construction caused by corruption. When he appeared to testify in a related case, he was beaten by authorities. Only emergency surgery saved his life.

Alison Klayman, a filmmaker preparing a documentary on the project, says the government's denial of responsibility in the tragedy "radicalized him." His blog posts "got a lot of attention domestically and not just [in] the art community but [from] waitresses, parents, and schoolteachers. He touched a lot of people."

Ai transformed his activism into art with "So Sorry," consisting of 9,000 children's backpacks in vibrant colors. Arrayed on the facade of Munich's Haus der Kunst in 2009, they spelled out "She lived happily in this world for seven years," an epitaph for her lost child uttered by a Sichuan mother.

A work recently shown at the Tate Modern in London deals with the relation of the individual to the masses. In "Sunflower Seeds," Ai filled the vast Turbine Hall with 100 million, hand-crafted porcelain replicas of the tiny seeds. The number, five times the population of Beijing but only 1/16th the population of China, gave a sense of the enormous scale of the PRC's humanscape.

Created by 1,600 artisans over more than two years, the seeds have "a rich, political and poetic suggestiveness," Munroe says. During the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao framed himself as the sun whom his people (like sunflowers) followed. Ai recalls his starving youth in Little Siberia, when eating sunflower seeds was, he has said, his only "treat or treasure."

The work poses questions about the power of the individual – singly or en masse. It raises questions of mass production, the current source of China's economic power and influence, versus individual craft. It's tempting to view the work as seeds of inspiration planted by the artist that might grow into democracy. Yet the fake seeds "will never grow," Ai said in a filmed interview.

He has reasons for doubt. He's been put under house arrest, subjected to constant surveillance, and had his new studio in Shanghai bulldozed. His seizure by authorities is the latest sign of an escalating crackdown by authorities, fearful he might spark protests similar to the "Jasmine Revolution."

Until his detention, Ai used Twitter to disseminate diatribes against the government – sometimes 300 to 500 tweets daily – to more than 70,000 followers. The reaction in China to his disappearance, according to an e-mail from Ambrozy in Beijing, is "great outrage on the Internet and Twittersphere." Although the majority of Chinese are ignorant of his existence and comfortable with the economic gains of the past 30 years, Ambrozy predicts that among "netizens": "If he's forcibly silenced, throngs would rush forth. No one regime, no firewall could keep this down."

It's the young, tech-savvy generation (420 million Internet users in China) Ai hopes to reach with social-media art. In an interview shortly before his detention, Ai said, "It's impossible to stop freedom" in a digital world. Filmmaker Ms. Klayman characterizes Ai as "someone who's always got one eye on the present and one eye on the future, with the ability to be both on the pulse and on the cusp of what matters and is going to matter."

The art community has come to Ai's defense, calling for China to live up to its aspiration to be a cultural leader. Under the auspices of a consortium of international museums, the Guggenheim Museum launched an online petition drive calling for Ai's release.

"We felt compelled to do something," Munroe says, "and we felt Ai Weiwei would do this for us." Broadcasting the petition via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Munroe says, "It's a totally Ai Weiwei action to effect an Ai Weiwei liberation."

Klayman's documentary poses the question: "Can an artist change society?" Ai has said his role is to be an example that an individual can make a difference by triggering changes in thinking and opening up new ideas and possibilities – the mission of an artist.

Nurturing the seeds of human rights – a treat and a treasure – in a country of 1.3 billion suggests the power of a committed individual can be significant indeed.

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