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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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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."

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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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