Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, the first English translation of Ai Weiwei’s Chinese language blogs and micro-tweets, could not have appeared at a more timely moment, not least because Ai’s short-lived cyber postings have demonstrated the revolutionary potential of these rapid-fire, viral modes of communication (beyond the much-vaunted and exaggerated role of social media in the recent Middle East democratic uprisings). As a means of unleashing suppressed information and censored viewpoints and spreading impassioned calls for freedom, the blogosphere in China has had an undeniable effect—for good and bad.
The highest-profile victim of a harsh Chinese crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists in the wake of the “Jasmine Revolution” (itself largely an on-line phenomenon), Ai has been missing since April 3. Despite a large showing of international support (ranging from on-line petitions and street demonstrations to a heartfelt op-ed piece in the New York Times by Salman Rushdie and a flash graffiti campaign in Hong Kong that prompted warnings from the Chinese Army), no new information has emerged since a state-run newspaper reported on April 14 that Ai was “confessing.” While the major allegations against him are economic (an old ploy, since he had already been investigated, and cleared, on charges of fraud in 2009), slanders of bigamy and Internet pornography distribution were also insinuated (another common strategy, since tarnishing the morality of a culture “star” can deflect attention away from the real crimes, committed by the state, as in the 2008 case of director and photographer Zhang Yuan, who was dramatically, and illegally, arrested in his home and detained on drug charges).
Ai’s disappearance and detention took many observers by surprise. No matter how vocal he became, no matter what the government did to him—despite the fact that its harassment had rapidly escalated over the last two years from surveillance to beating to the demolition of his studio—everyone seemed to believe that his status as an international art world darling would insulate him from the harshest reprisals. But Ai knew better.
Beijing couldn’t care less about world opinion. (Ai would particularly appreciate the fact that a Foreign Ministry spokesperson denounced foreign support for a “criminal suspect” as an ignorant response that “baffled” the Chinese people and made them “unhappy.” His early blogs constantly expose the rhetorical veneration of this mythical entity—“the people”—whose will and desires are so perfectly satisfied by official government policies, while human individuals, the real Chinese people, suffer endless indignities.) In dealing with toothless international objections, Beijing knows how to daylight its opponent’s hypocrisy, pointing well-aimed counter-accusations at violence, racism, and torture. A two-day U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue (April 27–28) focusing specifically on recent forced disappearances, extra-legal detentions and arrests, and general issues of freedom of expression and rule of law predictably failed to make headway. Michael Posner, the State Department assistant secretary for democracy, did not receive a satisfactory answer or “sense of comfort” from Chinese officials in regard to Ai’s case.
In the West, we delight in the harmless antics of artists as “cultural pranksters” (to borrow Ben Davis’s phrase). We might also call them modern-day fools. No matter how strong their political commitment, how scathing and true their insights, it’s still “just” art. How much are they really laying on the line? Do their works or actions ever really reach beyond critique? That’s how many of us saw Ai’s activities, too—as cultural/political theater, savvy intellectual entertainment with no real consequences in the real world. Citizens of a country where right-wing bloggers continually libel the sitting President can’t possibly imagine how an individual—an artist—could be persecuted for demanding a full count of and recognition for thousands of school children killed in an earthquake. Perhaps to some extent, Ai allowed us to persist in this view, playing the “Chinese political artist” for the Western art world. Though his devotion to freedom and human rights predates his overtly political blog posts and controversial actions, we saw only certain aspects of it before 2007. (It’s also important to remember that the bulk of Ai’s writings, and all of the blogs, were in Chinese for a Chinese audience.) His early writings (pre-blog and from the first half of 2006) constrain his anti-government sentiments within a cultural purview, direct them at historical policies and legacies, or camouflage them in quasi-fictional form, as fables of daily life in “N Town,” for instance, or “the nation of C.” His meaning is clear, but the veil softens the picture just enough: you can say quite a lot about a country’s view of human rights and justice under the guise of discussing what makes for humane architecture and livable cities.
Things change in the second half of 2006 as Ai begins to test the blog as a true medium of expression and means to advance change (before the invitation from Sina.com, he said that the Internet was new to him). As he loosens up, the posts assume a voice of resistance, tackling the attempted Sars cover-up, Tibet, panda diplomacy, minor instances of misconduct, and major corruption—all of these set against official efforts to “paint and powder” the face of Beijing in preparation for the Olympics. Ideas now come out in the open, powered by irony and satire. “Familiar Curse Words” (August 20, 2006) screams with suppressed fury: “Human life is sovereign, and we are born into the rights and dignity that are inherent to it. These are superior to any power save of death, either spiritual or physical. The above statement is bullshit. Human beings have never been sovereign, they have always lived under oppression, and they must constantly remind each other of this, or there will be an even higher price to pay. This is the history of civilization.” The view may be bleak, but Ai never gives in to despair or defeatism.
The articulation of his ideas did not just complement his visual work, at times it seems to have advanced it. Fairytale (2007), for instance, may never have happened without the compulsive drive of the blog. That colossal undertaking and testament to the possibilities of freedom gave 1,001 anonymous, everyday individuals visibility, reaching beyond stereotypes of “the people” to introduce a group of ordinary Chinese men and women to the residents of Kassel and to life beyond the accepted patterns of their native land. As Ai pointed out in an interview (included in the book), Fairytale was not about artistic representation; nothing was scripted, nothing was planned—it required “art to be life, normalized” in order to create understanding: “You can only know what yellow people are like once you’ve seen white people or black people.”
As Fairytale demonstrates, writing for the blog and its audience of ordinary readers focused Ai’s thinking about what an artist can and should do. A post from August 1, 2006 lays out a neutral foundation: “If we say that artists must interpret their existence, and interpret their physical and spiritual state, this interpretation would unavoidably touch upon the era in which they exist, and upon the political and ideological state of that era…” The next question to ask is what responsibilities come with the job in this particular instance. By January 30, 2008 in “We Have Nothing,” Ai states his position plainly: creativity is defined by fantasy, suspicion, subversion, and criticism—“the fundamental requirements, or very substance, of life.” Creativity is power, specifically the “power to act. Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality…”
Those skeptics who dismiss Ai as a Chinese version of Andy Warhol, a huckster playing the art world game for fun, fame, and profit need to pay attention to those words—they are not just idle diatribe. Several months after Ai posted his activist vision of the artist as an agent of change, events put him to the test. On May 12, a massive earthquake centered in Wenchuan county struck Sichuan province. Official figures (from 2009) confirm more than 69,000 dead, 374,000 injured, and almost 18,000 missing, making it the deadliest earthquake in Chinese history since the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. This is the game-changer for Ai, and its overriding issues found resonance in his thinking. In a post titled “Aftershocks” from July 28, 2006, the anniversary of the Tangshan quake, he had considered the nature of disaster, both the visible and quantifiable event and the immeasurable, invisible psychological aftershocks. He specifically notes how long it took to get an accurate death toll. The strange Chinese relationship to accounting, its reluctance to quantify accident or disaster, comes to the fore in “Some Abnormal Numbers” (December 22, 2007). Ai points out that no one knows the exact population of Beijing (“despite the world’s most severe household residency registration policy”), nor does anyone know the exact number of Chinese killed at the Nanking Massacre (1937). The last obfuscation is the most important: “The Chinese have never understood that the dead must also be accounted for…this is the misery of the slaughtered, to have been neither treasured nor remembered by those more fortunate than them. They never had any definite status, neither in life nor in death.”
The same lack of accounting and accountability, remembrance and respect abstractly addressed in “Some Abnormal Numbers” became personal after Wenchuan. Approximately 6,000 students died in the quake, buried in the bricks and concrete of their sub-par school buildings. The questions asked by Ai and the other activists were nothing more incendiary than: Who failed to reinforce the “tofu-dregs” concrete? Who pocketed the money? How many children were dead, and who were they? And yet, answers were not forthcoming, information was withheld, culpability denied. (Think back to the outrage in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and imagine what it would have been like to have had no recourse from lies, no legal outlet to challenge the official story, no means to remember the dead, and no protection from official retaliation for daring to ask such questions in the first place.) From this moment on, Ai’s life and art distilled into one mission. As he explained a year later in an on-line discussion of the work carried out by Citizen Investigation: “When you pursue the truth, you have already decided not to abandon everything…When a people reject truth, they have already chosen death.” Post-earthquake, the blogs explode, as rage overrides irony, satire, critique, and any semblance of caution. The horrors, denials, and cover-ups of Wenchuan (and tainted milk and CCTV) alternate with the whitewashed “pipe dreams” of the Olympics, with its feel-good slogans and logos: “A society lacking democracy is incapable of orchestrating true joy for its people. If we had diverted one-thousandth of [the Olympic resources] to Sichuan, those schools would never have collapsed.“
A well-known adage cautions the powerful to fear individuals who have only one idea because they will die for it. Muhammad Iqbal’s formulation takes the opposite approach: “If you wish to be heard in the noise of this world, let your soul be dominated by a single idea. It is the man with a single idea who creates political and social revolutions…” As long as Ai was playing the fool or following the conventional role of Confucian truth-teller, the powerless conscience to power, he was safe. But when he shifted his energy from abstracted commentary to focus on a single target with the goal of enacting change in the real world, swaying opinion, and possibly leading people to act, he crossed the line from intellectual critique (annoying but ultimately non-threatening) to potentially dangerous agent provocateur and enemy of the state.
The blogs, eloquently translated by Lee Ambrozy, allow us to witness Ai’s transformation, as that one idea—art is life, life is creativity, and creativity is the power to create change—gains mass and strength like a tiny pebble that starts an avalanche. In “Familiar Curse Words,” Ai had already thrown down the gauntlet: “As far as one’s life is concerned, the highest purpose would be to sacrifice yourself for integrity. Similarly there is no greater disgrace than being too weak to make such a sacrifice, or simply living for the sake of being alive.”
This is by no means an easy book. It is impossible to follow Ai’s outpourings dispassionately, without ingesting some of the bile, some of the pain and frustration. But this is essential reading for anyone who cares at all for art, ideas, and human life. Ambrozy’s insightful introduction, generous footnotes, and chronology, which place the artworks and activist undertakings in their full cultural and political Chinese context, open up a world that most of us in the West have yet to face squarely and with honesty. “Create change” is a common mantra, but again it means little for us. Ambrozy allows us to grasp what those two words mean in China (or under any other repressive regime on the planet) and what is at stake for those brave enough to act on their convictions.
For China, Ai is more than an “artist” now, and his “transgression” is about more than Western ideals of freedom of expression. That’s why international public opinion means so little, which is not to say that we shouldn’t protest, that Anish Kapoor shouldn’t dedicate his Monumenta installation to Ai, that the mayor of New York shouldn’t denounce Chinese policies at the opening of Ai’s Circle of Animals. We just shouldn’t expect the release of any political activist through words alone—and sterner support, as China well knows, is probably not forthcoming since the economic interests of “concerned” democracies always trump human rights . (For the fullest coverage of the Jasmine Revolution arrests see Sandra Schultz’s April 20 article in Der Spiegel.)
Ai chose to return to China after 10 years of freedom in New York. In addition to avant-garde shock tactics, he carried purpose with him, and as his single idea grew, he maintained hope in the younger generation, in those who now expect an ever-widening world, who evade and push back the bounds of censure, increasingly unwilling to stifle their voices and opinions. On June 1, 2009, Chinese officials shut down Ai’s Sina.com blog and purged its entire contents from cyberspace. The last entry in Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants dates from November 20, 2009. This “pirate” text was posted just a few months after Ai underwent life-saving surgery in Munich for head injuries sustained in a police beating related to his activities in Sichuan. Still cocky and hopeful of the ultimate outcome (even if it’s decades from now), he writes, “What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap, or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly.”
Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006–2009
by Ai Weiwei, edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
320 pages, 58 illustrations. $24.95. ISBN: 978-0-262-01521-9