Posts tagged: Ai Weiwei

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.

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Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

Movie Review – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

By , April 21, 2013

Ai Weiwei with his Tate Modern art installation “Sunflower Seeds”

For the past few years, Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Wayway”) – Chinese artist turned dissident turned heavy metal singer – has occupied the Western consciousness as the voice of China’s activist community.  A larger than life personality and an adept producer and user of social media, Ai is well known to the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, and other Western media outlets.

But is he truly the voice of the Chinese dissident community?  Or just branding himself for success?  Is he even an artist?

Alison Klayman’s provocative documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, doesn’t precisely answer those questions. Instead the movie displays the humanity of the man behind the brand and perfectly captures the oppressiveness and absurdity of the Chinese government’s clamp down on any form of effective dissent.  That approach provides for a compelling documentary that both attempts to explain a complicated man and an even more complicated country.

When Klayman first began filming Ai Weiwei, she did not intend to create a film that adeptly portrays China’s fear of any form of dissent.  Instead, she was filming a Chinese artist whose star was on the rise after assisting with the design of Beijing’s iconic Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

But soon after she began filming, a monumental earthquake hit Sichuan, China, killing over 70,000, many whom were children attending classes

Parents at the Mianzhu School, with children’s backpacks still sprawled on the ground

at schools that it turns out were shoddily built.  The unnecessary deaths of these children and the fact that the Chinese government failed to investigate the causes or even reveal the exact number of children killed, was a life-changing moment for Ai, which Klayman skillfully portrays in the documentary.

In December 2008, Ai begins his single-minded quest to provide transparency to this tragedy.  Through a series of trips to Sichuan, Ai interviews various families to learn the names of the children killed.  In the process he creates a network of volunteers who assist him in this endeavor.  Ai’s work culminates in a moving documentary of his own “So Sorry” which exposes the shoddy construction of school buildings and the subsequent government cover up.

On the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, Ai goes online, publishing the names of these children.  Eventually, he organizes an online campaign where individuals across China can call in and recite one of the children’s names.  The ultimate product is perhaps the most subversive of Ai’s art – it is not just a tribute to the children lost; it is a wake-up call to the Chinese government that it is more than just Ai that wants greater transparency about the Sichuan earthquake; there is a whole bunch of people dissatisfied.

Activists protest the 5 year sentence for Sichuan earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government does not take kindly to Ai’s investigation and call to arms.  He has done the two things that scare the Chinese Communist Party the most – he has been able to effectively galvanize and organize a large swath of the Chinese public nationally and he has been able to subvert the firewalls and use social media to its most.  When he is in Sichuan, he is beaten and prevented from testifying at the trial of earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren; he is followed by local police who create more a scene in trying to “disperse” Ai than if they had left him alone; the Shanghai government – without any trial or hearing – tears down his studio (which they had invited him to build only two years previously); and he is eventually arrested by the Beijing police, kept in an unknown place without access to family, for over 60 days.

All of these actions demonstrate the absurdity by which the Chinese government deals with its people, especially those who seek to hold the government accountable.  Some might refer to this as dissent, but as Ai’s Sichuan earthquake online campaign demonstrates, and later on the “demolition party” he has at his Shanghai studio, it isn’t really dissent when so many ordinary Chinese people are in agreement with him and support him.

Klayman also spends time interviewing Ai about his childhood which, although Ai shortchanges its influence, must have had some impact on his current world view.  Fortunately, Klayman spends some time developing this part of Ai’s story.  Ai’s father – Ai Qing – was a famous revolutionary poet and early communist supporter, joining the Chinese Communist Party and partaking in its historic “Long March.”

But like many intellectuals in the late 1950s, Ai Qing soon felt the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957).  With his new “dissident” label, Ai Qing and his family – including the one-year old Ai Weiwei – were banished to China’s far western province of Xinjiang.  There the Ai family would remain for 19 years.  As Ai Weiwei recounts in his interview, his once illustrious, revolutionary father was forced to clean toilets.  During China’s Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing became his city’s enemy number one and subject to repeated abuse at the hands of the Red Guards.

You can’t help but draw conclusions that Ai Weiwei’s current questioning of authority is a result of what must have been horrible childhood experiences.  Which makes you wonder – what about all the other children of victims of the Cultural Revolution?  Ai is public in his dissatisfaction but you can’t help but think that his emotions must be shared by a large number of China’s “Lost Generation.”

Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is amazing precisely because it never does answer the questions which started this post – does Ai speak for

Guess what Ai Weiwei is telling the Chinese government?

the Chinese people or is he merely a brand.  The movie leaves you confident with the fact that it doesn’t matter.  That this man, and only this man, should be judged on his actions alone, and his actions thus far are sincere and heroic.  By the end of the film, you can’t help but like the guy and cheer him on as he single-handily antagonize the Chinese state in order to have some accountability of the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is both uplifting and scary as Klayman perfectly captures a slice of contemporary China that at times is too quickly described: the cat-and-mouse game between the activists and the Chinese government, that often has serious and dangerous repercussions for the former.   As Ai continues to needle the Chinese government, adeptly using social media to galvanize more ordinary Chinese, what will the Chinese government’s reaction be?  He’s already been detained once.  What else can they do?  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry doesn’t answer those questions because it can’t; only the Chinese government can provide the answer.

Rating: ★★★★★

Director Alison Klayman is currently touring the U.S. with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  Check out her website to see if she will be showing the film near you.  You can also request a screening by emailing screenings@aiweiweineversorry.com or purchase the movie on Amazon: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei – Artist, Dissident and….Tax Evader?

By , June 30, 2011

Getting caught for tax evasion

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

Taxes are a tricky business in any country, let alone China.  Tax codes are usually overly complicated and let’s face it, if you are making money, you can afford to hire accountants who think “creatively.”  American country singer Willie Nelson owed close to $32 million dollars in back taxes when the IRS declared one of the tax shelters his accountant was using to be in violation of the U.S. tax code (he later settled for $16 million, raising the majority of that money through the sale of his album entitled “The IRS Tapes: Who Will Buy My Memories?”); Leona Helmsey, the billionaire New York City hotel operator, served four years in prison for tax fraud (Helmsey allegedly enlightened her staff on a regular basis that “We don’t pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes.”); and Al Capone, mafia hitman, bootlegger and perhaps the most famous tax evader of all time, served his longest sentence, seven years, for tax evasion.

When Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was freed from police custody last Wednesday, the question was raised, most notably by Brian Lehrer in his interesting interview with Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine: “are you sure his detention was for being a critic of the government and not for evading taxes?”

Since his release, the Chinese government has vaguely issued more information about the investigation that landed Ai in criminal detention for the past two and a half months.  Although neither formally charged, arrested nor indicted, Chinese officials stated that Ai was held for “failure to pay a ‘huge amount’ of taxes and for willfully destroying financial documents.”  In particular, officials alleged that Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. failed to pay 5 million RMB (USD 770,000) and owed an additional 7.3 million RMB (USD 1.1 million) in penalties.

But the question remains, what is Ai’s individual liability for a corporation’s tax evasion?  Is he financially liable?  Can

In 2008, Ai was a Chinese government darling, designing the acclaimed Birdsnest Stadium

he be criminally prosecuted?

The answer is….you betcha,  if it is determined that Ai had some form of “direct responsibility” over Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.

Article 201 of China’s Criminal Law criminalizes tax evasion (Amendment VII to the Criminal Law Amends Article 201).  Like many laws in China, the actual law is not the end all and be all.  Because China is a civil law country, often the generalities of the national law are fleshed out in various agencies’ “interpretations.”  Here, Article 201, is further defined through the “Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on Some Issues concerning the Specific Application of Laws in the Trial of Criminal Cases for Tax Evasion and Refusal to Pay Tax” (“SPC Interpretation”).

The SPC Interpretation further defines tax evasion as: (a) forging, altering, concealing or destroying without authorization accounting books or supporting vouchers for the accounts; (b) overstating expenses or not stating or understating income in accounting books; (c) being notified by the tax authority to file tax returns but refusing to do so; (d) filing false tax returns; and(e) after paying the tax, fraudulently regaining the tax paid through the adoption of deceptive means such as fraudulently declaring the commodities it produces or operates as export goods.

But while Article 201 and the corresponding SPC Interpretation only uses the term “taxpayer,” Article 211 of the Criminal Law clarifies liability when the taxpayer is a corporation or business unit: “Units committing offenses under Articles 201, 203, 204, 207, 208, and 209 of this section shall be punished with fines, with personnel directly in charge and other directly responsible personnel being punished according to these articles, respectively.”

Thus if Ai Weiwei is determined to be a “personnel directly in charge” (直接负责的主管人员) of the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. he could potentially be criminally and economically liable.  Ai’s family has maintained that Ai cannot be on the hook because he is not the company’s “chief executive or legal representative.”  However, the Chinese for “personnel directly in charge” is not limited to just the chief executive or legal representative; rather it is anyone in the company with management responsibility (主管人员 is better translated as executive officer).

Ai Weiwei - a directly responsible person?

Furthermore, the second category “other directly responsible personnel”(其他直接责任人员) contemplates a much broader group of people that could potentially be anyone affiliated with the company that has some type of vaguely-defined “direct responsibility” over the company.

Potentially, there could be some validity to the alleged charges against Ai for Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. if the company did in fact evade taxes.  The Chinese government has yet to offer any evidence of the company’s tax evasion.  The company’s attorneys have appealed the charges of tax evasion and have requested a hearing before the Beijing Tax Bureau.

But if there is tax evasion, Ai’s liability will ultimately be determined by defining what his precise role is within the company.  According to friends and family members, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. merely dabbled in small design projects; the company was not involved in selling Ai’s work.  In fact, according to Ai’s family, it is his wife who is registered as the company’s legal representative not Ai; Ai was a mere consultant.

And while the Chinese government could potentially have a legitimate claim against Ai for the company’s tax evasion, it’s illegal detention of Ai, the fact that there is still no official indictment, the fact that the government continues to hold incommunicado the company’s accountant, the one person who could explain the company’s actual tax filings, and that the government went after Ai instead of his wife, the legal representative of the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., makes one suspect that the potential charges against Ai are a legal long-shot.  Instead, political considerations – the need to silence one of Beijing’s most vocal and well-known critics – are the real reasons behind the prosecution of Ai.  Again, the rule of law in China takes a back seat to politics and Party supremacy.

Ai Weiwei Released on Bail

By , June 22, 2011

Ai Weiwei

For the past three months, the world has awaited news on internationally-known artist Ai Weiwei’s unlawful detention by Chinese authorities.  Originally taken into custody on April 3, 2011, Ai’s detention has remained shrouded in rumors as the rest of the world vocally called for his release.

Although not formally arrested, on May 21, 2011, the state-run New China News Agency reported that Ai was being investigated for evading “huge amounts” of taxes through his corporation, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, Ltd.  However, no official government statement confirmed this report and no arrest warrant was issued.

Finally, this morning, Xinhua News Agency, another state-run news outlet, announced that Ai was released on bail “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”

Unlike in the United States, bail –or in Chinese qubao huoshen (取保候审) is not freely given in China.  As Prof. Jerome Cohen points out, the term bail is perhaps a misnomer in translating the Chinese since in China “bail” can be provided at any stage in the “investigation,” even before a formal arrest or an indictment as was the situation in Ai’s case (Siweiluozi also has a good piece on the inadequacies of translating qubao huoshen as bail).

If bail is limited in China, what are the circumstances in which it is given?  Prof. Cohen rightly points out that the consideration is largely political and has little to do with rule of law – it’s a good way for the Chinese government to get out of a difficult situation when international criticism mounts (Evan Osnos also has an interesting take on the impact of international pressure on Ai’s release).  But was Xinhua’s reason for bail – good attitude and a chronic disease – a legal basis for the rare reward of bail?

As a matter of fact, there is a basis in law.  Article 60 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) makes clear bail may be granted in those cases where the “criminal suspect or accused…should be arrested but are suffering from a serious illness….”  Ai suffers from diabetes and during his ordeal, Ai’s family repeatedly expressed his concerns about his health to the international press.  So while the Chinese government likely made a political choice to release Ai, there is in fact a veneer of legality.  But the claim of “good attitude” for bail is found nowhere in the CPL.

But what is perhaps a more interesting question, is the validity of the alleged charges of tax evasion.  Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, Ltd., is a limited company – how is Ai personally on the hook for the company’s tax evasion?  Presumably there would be limited liability, so how are the authorities able to attribute the company’s evasion to Ai?   On that issue, tune in later, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

In Defense of Dylan in China: Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize with Your Pen

By , April 10, 2011

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Bob Dylan performed in concert in Beijing on April 6 and Shanghai on April 8

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times – Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind – lambasts singer-songwriter/protest-singer/civil-rights-activist/voice-of-a-generation/whatever-he-is-to-you Bob Dylan for his recent concert in Beijing, China.  For Dowd, Dylan’s acceptance of the Chinese government’s approval of his set list is anathema to everything he represents.  Dropping his famous protest songs of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” from the set list during China’s most severe crackdown on its own citizens since 1989 and ignoring the recent detention of Chinese rights activists shows, for Dowd, that Dylan is nothing more than a sellout, willing to auction his morals to the highest bidder.

But Dowd’s virulent critique of Dylan makes one wonder, where has she been in all of this?  Dowd is an obvious Dylan fan, likely even a disciple, with her skilled use of Dylan quotes and understanding of the man’s extremely tangled and uncomfortable history with fame.  But China’s “harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade” and its “dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei” as Dowd notes, didn’t just start this weekend and didn’t just start with the detention of Ai Weiwei.

Since the middle of February, the Chinese government has been illegally abducting Chinese rights activists, preventing them from contacting their family let alone a lawyer, and subjecting them to torture and abuse.  This siege on rights activists in China is done as a pre-emptive strike on the nascent civil society that has been developing and is an attempt for the Chinese Communist Party to avoid the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali and maintain its one-party authoritarian rule, especially as a change of leadership comes in 2012.

Tang Jitian was abducted from his home on February 16, 2011, starting what has proved to be a wide-cast net of illegal abductions and abuse (abuse of both China’s own laws and the individuals that remain in custody).  Since then, Dowd has written 13 columns, not a single one dealing with the issue of the Chinese government’s harsh and violent crackdown on its citizens.  Today’s column barely touches upon the issue and instead focuses on Dylan’s “selling out.”

Let’s face it, Dylan is unable to sell out because he never bought in in the first place.  Dylan never fully engaged the civil rights movement.  While his songs did become a motivating force for many of the great civil rights activists and moments in U.S. history, by 1965, he was done with folk and had plugged in.  And since the 1980s, Dylan has been on a non-stop tour, selling the rights of his iconic protest songs to commercial entities (the rights to Times They Are A Changin’ was first sold to accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and in 1996 to the Bank of Montreal), appearing in a Victoria’s Secret ad, producing an abysmally bad Christmas album, and almost never including Blowin’ in the Wind and the Times They Are A’Changin’ in any set list anywhere in the world (review his set lists here: http://www.bobdylan.com/tour/calendar/2010).

Dylan’s lack of mentioning China’s recent crackdown on dissent isn’t shocking.  In fact, the old guy likely knows nothing of what is happening in China – why should we rely on him to be our voice and do all the work?  This isn’t his issue; in fact, the man likely has no issues other than himself.

Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd.  Unlike most of the people concerned about human rights abuses in China, Dowd has a powerful platform for her voice – her twice-a-week column in the N.Y. Times.  With a large and influential readership that likely reaches the halls of the White House and Congress, discussion of China’s recent abuse of its own citizens and its subversion of a rule of law in her column could influence important policy makers as well as the world-at-large.

To their credit, some of the world’s major newspapers have been reporting on China’s recent crackdown, but these articles have been cursory at best and do not fully explain why China’s recent assault goes above and beyond what traditionally occurs in an authoritarian regime.  But most individuals knowledgeable on the issue have had extreme difficulty in getting their voice out in the mainstream press (kudos though to The International Herald Tribune and the N.Y. Times for publishing opinion pieces in its print editions and kudos to  The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for having opinion pieces on the issue in their online papers).

Dowd has the opportunity to expose what is happening in China and call for the freeing of, or at the very least the end of the abuse of, not just Ai Weiwei, but also rights-defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Teng Biao, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Li Tiantian, and Gao Zhisheng.  The whereabouts of these lawyers, unlawfully abducted by Chinese authorities (even under Chinese law), remain unknown.  Their only offense: asking the Chinese government to uphold its promise of a rule of law and using the legal system to protect society’s most vulnerable.

Dowd’s disappointment in Dylan’s snub of China’s crackdown on dissent leads me to believe that this is an issue Dowd is concerned about.  But instead of asking Dylan to be the spokesperson for the issue, Dowd should practice what she herself appears to preach.  My challenge to Dowd is to use her sharp-witted pen and find a way to raise the plights of China’s rights-defenders in the American consciousness instead of relegating it to two sentences in a column that is otherwise a critique of Dylan.  If Dowd doesn’t, then I am left to think “you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time….”

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