Ai Weiwei: China's famed artist – and dissident – needs his freedom

Art and political activism find creative expression in China's most famous artist, Ai Weiwei. His detention Sunday while trying to fly out of China takes away his freedom – the quality that unites his twin passions.

Credit: AFP/DDP/Joerg Koch /Newscom
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses in front of his 2009 installation in Munich made of 9,000 backpacks to remember the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The Chinese artist Ai WeiWei is one of those unique figures in history who can straddle art and politics. When Mr. Ai was detained Sunday at Beijing’s airport, police took away the one quality that connects his two passions – his freedom.

Ai is the latest dissident in China recently detained or jailed for simply speaking out against the Communist Party. The fact that the country’s most famous artist – Ai helped design the bird’s-nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics – would suddenly disappear is a sign of just how much the party fears the Chinese people might follow the Arab spring and demand political freedom.

Ai is creative in both his political comments, usually transmitted via Twitter to 72,000 followers, and his art. When police set up cameras outside his studio, for instance, he not only mocked it smartly on his Internet postings, Ai also made sculptures that resembled the cameras.

When detained, Ai was on his way to live in Germany, hoping to find the freedom he needs to display his works. He was recently barred from exhibiting in Beijing, for instance, and his studio in Shanghai was bulldozed.

The best example of his ability to blend art and politics was when he campaigned against the official reaction to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 – which was to suppress news about the deaths and the shoddy building codes. He led the effort to gather the names of school children who died in the quake. He then created a giant art work in Munich made up of children’s colorful backpacks. The worked spelled out the words of one mother whose child was killed: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

This latest crackdown on dissent in China could be a long one. The rest of the world must not only take notice, but it should demand the release of Ai and others like him whose cries for liberty are part of a global recognition that rights are universal – just as art is.

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