Still Waiting

November 28, 2009 by USA Post 


AI WEIWEI is perhaps China’s most famous living artist and its most vociferous domestic critic, titles of a sort this committed iconoclast disdains. Which is not a bad thing, considering that recently, he very nearly lost them both.

Mr. Ai was in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, preparing to testify at the trial of a fellow political activist. “By 3 a.m., we heard a very strong noise in the hallway, very brutal, much like a Hollywood movie — knocking on every door: ‘Open it up — we are the police!’ ” he said.

“They kicked open the door. I said, ‘How do I know you are the police?’ They said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and punched me here.” Mr. Ai pointed to the right side of his forehead. “It was a very solid punch.”
A month later, at an art exhibition in Munich, Mr. Ai went to a doctor with a pounding headache and was rushed into surgery to drain a pool of blood from his brain.

Mr. Ai nearly died. Three months later, he says, his memory still fails him. On the other hand, “I don’t have so many good memories anyway.”

That seems an exaggeration. At 52, Mr. Ai, a beefy, bearded man with an air of almost monastic composure, is an international figure in the art world, successful beyond what anyone might have predicted even a decade ago. He is a celebrated architect, a co-designer of Beijing’s landmark Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker with a 100-member staff.

Artistically, he can do almost anything he wishes, like personally shipping 16 40-foot containers, including 9,000 custom-made children’s backpacks, from Beijing for his recent exhibition in Munich.

Yet clearly, all is not rosy in Mr. Ai’s world. In one of his early acclaimed works, a series of three photographs called “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” he dispassionately shatters a priceless ancient Chinese vase, striking a theme — destruction and recreation — that runs through much of his art.

Other works employ Ming and Qin period urns, furniture and architecture, assembled into haunting new creations, or painted over, Warhol-style, with the Coca-Cola logo, or speared by wooden beams. A series of photographs depicts global icons — the Forbidden City, the White House, the Eiffel Tower — interrupted by Mr. Ai’s hand, middle finger raised.

Then there are his politics, an in-your-face criticism of China’s leaders that, given Beijing’s limited tolerance for dissent, seems almost suicidal. Long before the Olympics, Mr. Ai disavowed his role in designing the Bird’s Nest, saying the government had transformed the Olympics into a patriotic celebration instead of using them to create a more open society.

In a 90-minute interview in his minimalist studio in north Beijing, Mr. Ai called the government unimaginative, prevaricating, suspicious of its own people and utterly focused on self-preservation.

“They don’t believe in liberty. They don’t believe in China before the Communists,” he said. “There is only one simple, clear task: to protect their control, to maintain their governing. Which is such a pity.”

All of this he has said many times before. China’s nationalists often accuse him of shilling for the West, and in fact, Mr. Ai ended his chat with a plea to President Obama to call for greater freedom in China, saying “we still need the moral support of the Western leaders” to press for more uncontrolled space in a still-closed society.

With or without help, Mr. Ai is pressing hard. His most provocative art, as well as his latest cause, concerns the question of why the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed thousands of children in their classrooms — and why the government has refused to give the public an official explanation.

After the quake, Mr. Ai used the Internet to assemble scores of volunteers who combed the disaster area, compiling a list of more than 5,000 dead children, organized by age and school, that now covers one wall of his studio. “The picture became clear. All of them belonged to about 20 schools, and those schools, the buildings collapsed to dust,” he said. “Why did those buildings collapse, and the ones next to it are standing?”

THE citizens’ inquiry has produced a detailed list of questions, sent to government agencies, which were supposed to be answered by this past Tuesday under law, but have yet to be addressed. In December it will yield a documentary film on the disaster.

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