Achgut: Passover for Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei Tate Sunflower seeds exhibitIt is now the time of the Jewish festival Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. According to the Jewish sages, not only the physical liberation is celebrated but also the liberation of speech. Freedom and speech are two essential Passover themes and they are closely related as historically, culturally as well as intellectually, freedom has always been one of the cornerstones of Judaism. With that in mind, I suggest we also direct our thoughts to someone who is at this very moment imprisoned and denied his freedom to speak. He is not Jewish, even though his name has a Jewish sound to it, yet what he stands for is more than paralleled in Jewish thought:

China’s most famous artist and political activist Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts remain unknown, after he was arrested on the 3rd of April at Beijing airport while attempting to board a plane to Hong Kong. Ai Weiwei is best known for his design of the Beijing Olympic stadium and his Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Recently he had bought a studio in Berlin and was planning to move there from Beijing, as his life has become increasingly threatened in China. In 2009 he had to undergo an emergency surgery of cerebral haemorrhage in a hospital in Munich after being brutally beaten up by Chinese police in Chendu, Sichuan province, China. In previous months Ai Weiwei had been documenting and publicizing the names of more than 5000 children who had died under collapsing, ill-constructed school buildings. Using Twitter, he asked his supporters to read out the names of school children who tragically died under the collapsing school buildings in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Ai Weiwei made considerable use of Twitter, documenting his activities to the outside world. He seeks to expose the oppressive nature of the communist regime and for this purpose often thematises the power of the internet. Unfortunately there has been no message online or elsewhere, no vital sign of him since he was forcefully detained over two weeks ago. His supporters, lawyers and friends have also been arrested. Ai Weiwei has been very brave to live and work in Beijing, despite the constantly life-threatening situation he has found himself in as an outspoken critic of the regime. China’s treatment of political dissidents is similar to Russia’s treatment of dissident political journalists, like Oleg Kashin who was beaten up in front of his house in November 2010 and had all fingers on his right hand broken, presumably to keep him from writing.

Whenever a well-known dissident journalist in Russia has not been active online for a few hours, readers of the main political blogs begin to worry for his whereabouts, which is also how supporters of Ai used to know he was safe. In our Western world, Ai had been widely thought to be untouchable, one might say the world community assumed he was “too big to fail,” too famous, his art work exhibited in the most prestigious museums worldwide – who would have thought Chinese authorities would simply wipe him out of the public view. Alas, his popularity was not the shield of protection it was hoped to be. Chinese authorities claim to investigate him for tax evasion, which is the usual alleged reason given as part of China’s on-going brutal crackdown on dissidents.

Worldwide groups of supporters have gathered in front of Chinese embassies to protest for his release. A collection of artists staged a global protest entitled “1001 chairs for Ai Weiwei” via Facebook, whereby they called for people to allude to his installation from the “Documenta 12” exhibition in Kassel, Germany in 2007, by sitting on chairs in front of Chinese embassies world-wide. Conceptual artist Swetlana Gerner, who grew up in Kiev during the era of Brezhnev, knows the metaphor of sunflower seeds from the communist Soviet Union well. Sunflower seeds are a street snack; they are sold cheaply and in masses, the individual seed counts as little as the individual activist under the Chinese regime. Gerner suggests for people in the UK to strew sunflower seeds in front of the London Confucius Institute, (which aims to create cultural and educational exchanges between Britain and China) in reference to Ai’s “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition in the Tate. [You can buy a bag of sunflower seeds for about £0.75 in Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s. The London Confucius Institute can be found Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, WC1H 0XG, London. Or alternatively, the Chinese embassy in London can be found at 49-51 Portland Place London, W1B 1JL, nearby Regent’s Park.]

“From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be” said Ai in an interview for the Tate in the summer of 2010. With this attitude, he draws upon the Chinese cultural heritage as well as the society and politics of contemporary China, whose actions and value he challenges and subverts. The act of individuals voicing their opinions and communicating with one another is of great importance to him. As a Politics and Communications student I cannot help but bring in the Habermasian notion of the “public sphere” at this point. The public sphere is a “discursive arena that is home to citizen debate, deliberation, agreement and action” (Villa, 1992) to voice public opinion and ensure that citizens are empowered to exercise influence over the state. Habermas calls it a “sphere which mediates between society and state.” Dialogue which lies at the heart of this very democratic notion, is clearly undercut by the Chinese repressive regime.

Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” exhibit in the Tate Modern in London displays over one hundred million seeds, five times the number of Beijing’s population and nearly a quarter of China’s internet users. The work seems to pose numerous questions. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?

This article was published on Henryk Broder’s blog Achgut:


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