Artists Censorship Fairs China

The story of Ai Weiwei’s arrest in his own words

The whole of China is a potential ready-made for the controversial artist

Ai Weiwei gestures to the media and supporters after leaving the Beijing tax office. © David Gray / Reuters

Hanging Man is an extended two-part interview with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, fleshed out with contextual information, impressions of China now, subsidiary conversations with other well-known dissidents and some attention to his art. Barnaby Martin is primarily a journalist and his focus, as the title states, is on Ai’s 81-day imprisonment from April 2011—details of which go beyond the particular biographical interest of how a famous figure was treated—to explain some of the workings typical of the Chinese state.

Ai was born in 1957. His poet father was close to Mao before falling out of favour in the intellectual purges of the 1950s, leaving he and his family exiled to live in a branch-covered hole in the Sino-Siberian desert. Ai was one of the Stars group of young artists who emerged in 1979, their collective name indicating a rebellious individualism contrary to the approved collective style. He left for New York in 1981 and stayed for 13 years, making little artistic impact (but learning plenty) before returning to China believing that “the worst thing that could happen was that they’d put me in gaol. Because back then I was naive, I said to myself, ‘I’m ready for that.’ Which is ridiculous.”

Ai was soon a success, making hard-hitting work with a conceptual edge, which distinguishes it from the “cynical realism” of the politically-infused Pop art that made such a splash in the art market. The famous photographs of him Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, for example, neatly epitomise what Martin calls the Cultural Revolution’s “incredible aim of the total destruction of the old Chinese society and its replacement with something new”. Ai’s other signature work on returning was the photographic series “Studies of Perspective”, 1995-2003, in which he literally gives the finger to the key sites of Chinese authority. The state’s rapid closure of the exhibition “Fuck Off” in 2000, a title implicitly addressed to the authorities, needs, however, to be balanced with his direct involvement in the design of the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Nevertheless, he ran into problems with his blogging activity and was beaten by police after making work that protested the number of schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Martin takes the “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition at Tate Modern in 2010 to be Ai’s defining artistic achievement, perhaps because he can explain it in straightforward political terms: the handmade quality of the millions of ceramic seeds, painted by 1,600 artisans, “indicates how each human personality is unique, and yet the seeds were dumped into a great pile, impersonalised as oppressive regimes seek to depersonalise the individual”.

The most penetrating comments on Ai’s work come from the artist himself, who acknowledges Duchamp as his master, and says that he intends to use the whole of China as a ready-made; somehow including as art the predicament of China’s place in the world, and his own predicament as an artist trying to practice freely.

It was never completely clear on what grounds Ai was arrested. Frustratingly, although he tells Martin that “they accused me of five crimes,” the reader is told only about two of them: “inciting subversion of state power” and “economic crimes”, which eventually emerged as the tax evasion for which he was publicly condemned.

Ai vividly describes his first day in custody: eight hours with two silent police officers “sitting right next to you, staring you in the face. No emotion… Like rock”. That constant close observation continues, but when the questioning starts, he is struck by his interrogators’ apparent ignorance: “the accusations are ridiculous,” but “it’s more frightening to be thrown into the hands of people who will never understand what you are trying to say.”

There is interesting material here, but it is somewhat stretched out at book length, and the balance feels more opportunist than rigorous. For example, we get tangential material on the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, but little sense of the conditions behind Ai’s release (which seems to have resulted from some sort of deal) and the consequences for him. It is worth noting that, despite his weariness and fear, Ai kept his sense of humour, and remained optimistic. He says that his diabetes was much improved by the detention (by a strictly controlled diet?), and cites touches of humanity in his guards, such as their constant offers of tea, and that they handcuffed him as comfortably as possible, over his shirtsleeves. That fits with Martin’s own conclusion that more change will come in China as “the rank and file are just going through the motions, they have lost the faith. The gap between what the Party says and what it actually does has finally become too great.” That’s a gap that Ai Weiwei helps to expose.

Hanging Man: the Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Barnaby Martin, Faber and Faber, 256pp, £14.99 (pb)

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