BEIJING – Anger is essential to the modern Chinese male character, which is so strikingly “un-Asian” compared with, say, a Japanese with his cool dispassion toward lethal risks or the Thai with his elegant aesthetic of combat as a dance to the death. On the streets of Beijing, it’s not uncommon to see a burly bloke belly-bump a police officer while bellowing vulgarities. In most places, it’s the cops who bully the civilians; only in China is it the other way around.
The recently detained artist Ai Weiwei is an exponent of the macho gesture, Beijing-style. His life work is a rendering of the rude shove, the slamming door, spit and cigarette butts on polished marble floors and tussles in the subway. The leitmotif of one of his art series is the middle figure superimposed over images of China’s national monuments. Like the enraged man on the street, the artist brutalizes symbols of authority.
Surprisingly, his recent arrest at Beijing’s airport while trying to board an overseas flight did not stem from his controversial art, radical political views or an assault complaint but was related to a drab and dreary case of financial irregularities involving his new Shanghai studio. Though to his ardent supporters the charges may look like a set-up by the police, Shanghai is rife with commercial scams related to land and zoning codes. Details of the case are by law kept from media release until conviction, and Ai Weiwei himself has never provided answers to the charges, choosing instead to make counter-accusations of political persecution.
Ai Weiwei’s alleged violation of property regulations, like the myriad of other less-publicized cases in Shanghai, has its origins in those heady days when the municipality was led by municipal party chief Chen Liangyu, who has since been arrested for embezzlement and property fraud. Chen wooed anyone in the cultural field who had connections with the West in the drive to win approval for the city’s bid for a World Expo. Often Chen took personal charge by inviting a guest to a private dinner, such as one this author sat in on, to promise that a successful effort to bring over cultural heavyweights from the U.S. and Europe would be rewarded generously.
In 2000, Ai Weiwei, who had studied at Parsons School of Design and familiar figure in New York’s avant garde art scene, was invited to curate a group show in Shanghai. His radical anti-authoritarian opinions were received with enthusiasm by Chen’s cultural circle, which included neo-conservative critics of the Cultural Revolution, who in an earlier era would have been deemed capitalist roaders. The city gates were flung open, and the artist got his pick of real estate.
A series of property scandals, triggered by mass evictions of long-time residents, eventually led to the arrest of Chen and his associates. Land titles transferred under hi0s regime have since been reviewed, and hundreds of prosecution cases filed. Ai Weiwei’s new studio, which was among the questionable properties was torn down like many other illegal structures. There’s nothing extraordinary about this sort of corruption, except for its politicized defense by Ai Weiwei and his foreign sponsors, including the American ambassador to China.
As the Shanghai case illustrates, Ai Weiwei is not only an artist, architect, filmmaker, curator, social critic and dissenter, he is also a low-end property developer with an apparently sloppy ledger book, rife with shady accounting practices. To some he’s a great artistic talent, but as a businessman he’s known for skirting the rules. His loosely administered property dealings have long raised eyebrows among academic artists and municipal officials in Beijing.
Now, as the hidden associations with Shanghai’s boss, who abused political power to evict thousands of residents from their homes, come out, the truth is blowing apart Ai Weiwei’s phony “anti-corruption” crusade. No wonder he keeps his fat mouth shut about the sordid details.
Whatever his claims of political persecution, the fact is that Chinese authorities have shown nearly infinite latitude toward this artistic maverick and social rebel. Their muted acceptance of his barrage of insults illustrates how, at the gut level, the Chinese are more democratic than their ultra-polite and class-conscious peers in Japan, Thailand and India.
Across the entire continent, there is no artist who can come close to Ai Weiwei in outrageousness, as expressed in 2000 with a group exhibition that he co-curated titled “F–k Off”. His publicity materials used all four letters. There are cities in America and Europe where you couldn’t get away with printing the offensive word on posters and flyers. Just imagine the reaction to such an arts event in Karachi or Riyadh. So freedom of expression in China is a lot safer than in many other parts of the world.
Despite his hatred of authority, Ai Weiwei is no inner-city plebe or impoverished peasant but one of the princelings born to privilege. In his youth, he experienced hardship and poverty not as a commoner but as the son of a once high-ranking cultural official. His father Jiang Zhenghan, a poet who took the pen name Ai Qing, was purged from the Communist Party in 1957 during the anti-rightist movement and exiled to the hinterlands of Xinjiang Province.
Ai Weiwei’s memories of banishment are captured in his installation, “Sunflower Seeds” at London’s Tate Museum. Piled across the floor of the .turbine room are 100 million porcelain seeds, each handmade in China. Art critics have interpreted the tear-shaped pebbles as an analogy of mass production, exploitation of sweatshop labor, the persistence of individualism in a collective society and the pointlessness of China’s national objectives. The artist stated in simpler terms: “In China, when we grew up, we had nothing . . . but for even the poorest people, the treat or the treasure we’d have would be the sunflower seeds in everybody’s pockets.”
Under his original conception – later canceled by curators due to the health risks of ceramic dust – museum-goers were encouraged to walk over the fragile seeds, crushing them. Such is the fate of the multitude doomed never to sprout, grow and blossom, these who in their millions end up as empty husks strewn over train platforms and under the tables of beer swillers.
That bleak outlook, sadly, is Ai Weiwei’s view of human existence as sterile, stunted and futile. These are not the fields of yellow blossoms humming with bees in the Xinjiang sunlight, which he saw as a boy in western China, nor the bouquets of Van Gogh cut off from their roots yet pulsating with energy.
Into the Cultural Elite
A premature dead-end is certainly no reflection of his own career. His family was pardoned with the economic reforms at the start of the Deng Xiaoping era. After being branded a reactionary bourgeois poet, his father Ai Qing saw his reputation restored in 1979 as the lyrical voice of Mao’s Yanan-based resistance to Japanese military occupation and a democratic intellectual who had selflessly supported workers’ uprisings against the dictatorial Nationalist Party in the 1930s. His rejection of the family name “Jiang” or Chiang, in disgust at the brutal tyranny of Kuomingtang chief Chiang Kai-shek, was again hailed as an exemplary act of moral integrity.
Just a year before his father’s release, from exile Ai Weiwei was enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, alongside illustrious classmates Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who soon became China’s leading filmmakers. Quickly he, too, was welcomed into the nation’s cultural elite, as a younger member of the avant garde movement known as “The Stars.”
His alienated generation felt burning anger toward the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. Before long, however, many including Zhang Yimou came to terms with the governing populist ideology and joined the upper echelons of the arts establishment. As China’s “commanding” film director, Zhang took the political position of accepting the historical necessity of national unity, as depicted in his film “Hero” with the would-be assassin’s ultimate decision not to execute the emperor.
Ai Weiwei, in contrast, rejected what he saw as the shallow and self-serving mantle of “national representative artist”, denouncing Zhang Yimou (and Stephen Spielberg) for producing the mass-exercise performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His reaction was one of “disgust” at “anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment.” Consistent with his iconoclasm, Ai repudiated his own participation in the architectural design team for the Bird’s Nest Stadium. The son, like his father, demonstrated extraordinary courage and stubbornness – though under far different circumstances.
Before heaping praise on Ai Weiwei as a champion of freedom and democracy, Western artists should ask themselves if they have ever taken the same stance against their own involvement with corporate or government sponsors. Has any one of them refused all funding from grants, exhibitions and seminars? If any such uncompromising artists do exist in the West, they can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The Clubbing Incident
His reputation would have been enshrined forever had Ai Weiwei remained a lone artist in the footsteps of a Vincent Van Gogh or a solitary dissident like novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. His self-righteous refusal of emoluments, however, did not extend to foreign governments. He gladly received cash awards, including the overtly political Prism of Reason from the city of Kassel, Germany, and another from the political science faculty of the University of Ghent, Belgium.
An inconsistent stance toward state sponsorship at home and abroad undermines his existentialist principles. As with his friend and ally Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel laureate for literature, his sensational acts of dissent appear to be aimed at currying favor from foreign sponsors rather than toward enlightening his compatriots.
Especially insensitive was his showing up in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, video camera in hand, to expose the corruption behind the poor construction of public schools that killed many local children. The problems related to countryside schools are no state secret, especially to the grieving parents, but were already taken up as a serious nationwide discussion, including among the state-run media. A discussion of such gravity in a neo-Confucian society, which accords the highest esteem toward education, the school issue had to be handled with utmost propriety and rationality, and not as a controversy-stirring art statement aimed at foreign audiences.
In a consequent incident, the physically large artist pushed a local policeman, who responded with a light warning tap from a billy club to the assailant’s head. Soon the artist’s skullcap showed signs of swelling. Instead of going to a clinic in China, Ai Weiwei flew to Munich for treatment. His flight abroad, which risked a contusion from low cabin pressure, raised medical suspicions with a Hong Kong physician who told me that the brain swelling might have been symptomatic of a recreational vice from his bohemian lifestyle.
Father, Son and the Ghost
Ai Weiwei is no Surrealist revolutionary or Dada radical assaulting bourgeois sensibilities since he is firmly ensconced in the upper bracket of the cultural establishment. His artistic appeal to wide sections of the capital’s elite lies in his ability to invoke a nostalgic longing for the old days when everyone was equal in common poverty, before economic reforms split the Chinese into rich and poor, privileged and exploited, and educated and benighted.
Better to be together and crushed under, his works tell the viewer, than to find yourself alone at the top. As contemporary China’s “greatest artist,” he knows what it means to be top dog.
Whatever innate talents he may possess, his successes are based on the easy access opened to the son a rehabilitated comrade. Since university, his career advancement was constantly favored over other less-connected rivals in compensation for the unjust punishment that had been meted out to his father. Other banned “rightist” intellectuals never lived to see redemption, perishing in the outland with reputations cast to the winds like ghosts. Meanwhile his old schoolmates and childhood friends were left behind, unrecognized in the provincial dust and grime.
Ai Weiwei is perfectly right not to give thanks to hypocrisy. Yet all the fawning favoritism with its inherent unfairness to his peers must have fueled self-doubt. He never had to earn and really struggle, for everything was given to him by his father’s admirers who pulled the strings. How less compromised, how much more honest, how purer it would have been to remain unforgiven. A condemned man has nothing but his pride, but to be forgiven is to silently bear the shame. What Ai Weiwei likely suffers psychologically is an angst that drives his rage and rebellion: the guilt of the forgiven.
The Dark Ages
The business dealings that led to his detention can be outlined only in broad detail since court proceedings cannot be released until after conviction. The legal case in Shanghai is likely based on violations of zoning regulations, assessment of property value and perhaps illegal methods of clearing the land of tenants. If his case was watertight, the outspoken Ai Weiwei would have by now disclosed the details. His business methods are less than transparent as shown in his arts collective in Bejing.
In 1999 Ai Weiwei led his followers out of the increasingly commercialized 798 artists’ colony to a nearby site in Caochangdi village (CCD). There, he demonstrated a rather limited ability at architecture with far less skill than his attempts at conceptual art. The crowded warren is built of plain red-bricks stuck together by a crudely applied impasto of cement. The high walls and sparse windows allow in little natural light. In the present era of the green buildings, the fluorescent-lit complex seems an artifact from the dark age of black attire and techno raves.
Inside, loft galleries serve as live-in quarters and business offices in violation of zoning regulations for residency as well as registration rules for foreign citizens. His coterie of artist friends and gallery owners amassed small fortunes subletting the cheaply built shells to foreigners beguiled by Beijing’s hip art scene. Belonging with China’s new avant garde was the cachet of Caochangdi Art Space.
The illegal rental scams, somehow overlooked by village officials, attracted the notice of the national tax office and Beijing municipal officials, who tried more than once to shut the place down. Then, following a 2006 crackdown on Beijing’s rave discos, which were fueled by ketamine-laced Ecstasy smuggled in by Dutch and Israeli traffickers, anti-narcotics detectives began to focus on the city’s bohemian art colonies.
The libertine lifestyle was modeled on anarchist havens in former East Berlin and Crete, which were used by Western intelligence agencies to promote youth revolutions through a false sense of drug-induced “creativity and freedom.” American enthusiasm for psychotropic drugs in Iran, Egypt and Syria is described in State Department operative Jared Cohen’s book “Children of the Jihad”, as preparation for the Twitter protests and Jasmine revolutions.
The drug-fueled “free expression” necessary to contemporary art and politics, as defined by Frankfurt School social theorist Herbert Marcuse, had some horrific side effects. Ketamine causes brain swelling and hemorrhaging, Chinese medical doctors became alarmed by the evermore powerful dosages being distributed. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was also tracked the new Opium War streaming Ice, X, ket and heroin into and through China.
Drug use and casual sexual attitudes at Caochangdi added to the vices plaguing China’s art scene, which include rampant forgeries of antiquities and fronting for money-launderers. Art dealers’ collaboration with international mafia was uncovered in the shocking 2004 murder of Hong Kong’s Swiss gallery owner Manfred Scheoni, who often met with Russian gangsters at Beijings’s St. Regis Hotel. The criminalization of China’s cultural industry is emerging as a shameful scandal in a nation deeply resentful of the foreign looting of masterworks by Western troops in the sack of the Summer Palace and by foreign adventurers who pilfered the Dunhuang treasures.
Increasingly, Chaochangdi art space was seen by visitors as a filthy rat hole, making some art patrons wonder whether Ai Weiwei was using political activism to fend off public demands for police investigation of his associates’ criminal activities. His father’s admirers in the cultural hierarchy could no longer block or restrain the mounting pressures against a prodigal son.
Over recent months, the noose has been tightening. Beijing authorities, as the capital’s rumor mill suggests, suspected that some Caochangdi galleries were used as a conduit for European and American intelligence funding for protests, including the failed Jasmine Revolution on Wangfujin shopping avenue. U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s covert presence at the first protest with a pair of Marine bodyguards, caught on video by April Media, was followed by his Shanghai speech calling for the release of Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo.
This sort of interventionist foreign “solidarity” does nothing to dispel suspicions or disprove accusations. It seems that his sponsors in the United States, Netherlands and Germany are intent on pushing Ai Weiwei onto the gallows as a sacrificial victim. They don’t have to push hard.
With his flippancy toward transgression, Ai Weiwei is his own worst enemy. At a March 2010 New York forum with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey – which coincided with covert Western plans for launching the Jasmine Revolutions – the married Ai Weiwei boasted to a stunned audience of his frequent use of short messages to chat up young women for sexual encounters. As any artist who has reached maturity knows, licentiousness is not the same as freedom. Artistic expression as well as other liberties do not come from radical posturing but are earned through self-discipline and taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
Flagrant defiance of social mores does matter when it comes to impressionable young people, as stressed in his own words: “Your own acts or behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.” That should have been his Twitter message.
Cowardice of the Artistes
Ai Weiwei might find redemption if only he could become what he professes to be: the heir to the creator of Dada, Marcel Duchamp. The iconoclastic Frenchman’s genius was rooted in his devastating wit. And that is exactly where his would-be successor has gone wrong, careening down the emotional blind alleys of anger and, worse, sentimentality. Humor is the only revenge against hypocrisy.
What’s disturbing to someone who has worked in the art field in New York, and later as an occasional critic in Tokyo, is the sheepish code of political correctness among critics and artists, Chinese and foreign. By uncritically defending an egocentric bully like Ai Weiwei, the arts community shows its spinelessness in failing to question his nihilistic stance on art and life. A double standard is also at work here, when it comes to artistic freedom in China and the West. The critics are not exactly rushing out of cafes on the Left Bank or East Village to defend the free speech rights of John Galliano.
Are the authorities really to blame? The Chinese edition of Global Times stated: “China needs a multiplicity of voices, and for this reason diverse opinions should not be suppressed. Ai Weiwei, however, has gone too far in mimicking American ways and his behavior is naive and childish.” That’s hardly the stuff of repression, just a very light slap on the wrist.
Taking the liberty to summarize the present situation more bluntly than the well-mannered Chinese press: Ai Weiwei’s involvement in financial irregularities, Western vices and foreign propaganda campaigns has done immeasurable harm to the democratic cause that he espouses and to the arts community. As a leading cultural figure, he should have shown better judgment in dealing with his Western sponsors, since those with ulterior motives have taken advantage of his gullibility while others have used him to push their business or political agendas (as happened before the Olympics), which have nothing to do with democracy for the Chinese people. Now that he’s losing his credibility as an internationally recognized artist, those “sponsors” are going turn their backs on him.
The contemporary arts scene in Beijing and Shanghai is badly compromised – not due to government meddling or censorship but because of the crass motives of the artists themselves – and that, unfortunately, includes the would-be reformers. Hell can’t be blamed on some devil when it’s your own sins that put you there.
Art of the Masses for the Classes
The discussion in Beijing today is about the artist’s social role and hardly about art. His work still should be judged apart from the current business and political scandal. His work is, ironically, similar to his own dig at former classmate Zhang Yimou. Both of these leading artists have transferred social realism’s credo of “the masses” into the contemporary Chinese context of hypercapitalism with Confucian characteristics. The vast numbers of Ai Weiwei’s old windows and doors piled at Kassel Documents 12 in 2007 and of artificial seeds at the Tate, like Zhang’s army of dancers at the Olympic opening, are reduced to empty spectacle.
The difference is that Ai Weiwei does it intentionally as critique, while Zhang Yimou exploits grandiosity for its entertainment value. Their opposition is not a personal duel between a state-approved artist and a radical dissident, since both act as the “anointed” icons chosen for a two-line struggle within the governing elite over the role of art in contemporary China. How can art best serve the national interest: as a unifying tool or a corrective whip?
Missing from both their oeuvres, and from the debate, is the economy of means necessary to strong art. However positive the intent or outcome of a grand social enterprise, it is the individual who makes the sacrifice and pays the price. Thus the solitary person, despite and because of the uniqueness of one’s quirks and aberrations, conveys the internalized trauma wrought by historical change that a million representatives cannot express. The individual suffers a high price for social change and only by examining this psychological toll can a true measure or appreciation of that progress be gained. At the end of this transitional reform era, one must let go of the forms of the past, since parodies of the Cultural Revolution are now trite. The challenge now is for artists to find a new way of seeing through the eyes of the individual.
Ai Weiwei has come full circle – from impoverished exile rising to the pinnacles of fame and now plummeting into disrepute as a pariah. Those brilliant fields of sunflowers, their promise of longing fulfilled and of a vision within reach, remain a world away from the darkening shadows over this forbidding city. Hope can be extinguished but art never dies since it’s endlessly reborn – even if somewhere else.
Yoichi Shimatsu is Editor-at-large at the 4th Media, a Hong Kong-based environmental writer and former editor of the Japan Times Weekly.