When millions of us first saw Jeff Widener’s widely-circulated “The Unknown Rebel” photograph—which depicted a lone man halting the advance of China’s People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square—and Charlie Cole’s June 5, 1989 video footage of the same event, we were shocked by the potency of the image. It is only in retrospect, after the image has become an international symbol of the end of the cold war era, that we can fully parse the why of its provocation: the use of an Old Testament image—that of David and Goliath—in the context of a culture completely absent of individualism is a powerful, and packed, reversal.
I suspect that Ai Weiwei, China’s greatest artist and certainly one of the first truly global artists of the 21st century (who was then living in New York, as he had since 1981), must have taken the Tiananmen Square episode as evidence of—to paraphrase Bob Dylan—the times a-changin’. By the time he returned to China, after his father, the prominent poet Ai Qing, fell ill in 1993 and passed away in 1996, Ai had recognized the defining moment of his life as an artist.
Now, having perused the many outlets that have confronted Ai’s detainment—notably Alison Klayman’s 20-minute documentary for PBS, Salman Rushdie’s and Ken Johnson’s respective articles in the New York Times, and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s urgent note in Time magazine, not to mention thousands of blog, Facebook, and Twitter mentions—my colleagues at the Rail at I feel compelled to voice our support for Ai.
Through his experience in New York, which he astutely absorbed while observing layers of cultural scenarios—from underground experimental and avant-garde film and poetry to the prevailing trends of conceptual art and Neo-Expressionist painting (the former of which explores a various range of medium and the latter of which yields to monumental scale and the freedom of appropriation) that were dominant in the ’80s and the early ’90s—Ai was able to transport the first-hand experience and incite a new generation of older and younger artists in Beijing. Within the 1990s, benefited by the country’s growing economy, Ai and his contemporaries established the legitimacy of contemporary art in China in the global art world.
However, Ai’s deeper conviction, primarily expressed through his visual arts, has always stemmed from his social and political consciousness. This tradition, that of the volksgeist, “the spirit of the people” in China, dates as far back as Lao Tzu, Confucius of the 6th century BCE, Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu during the Tang Dynasty to the minds of contemporary writers and poets, such as Liao Yiwu, Ye Du, Liu Xianbin, Teng Biao, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is now serving an 11-year term.
Ai’s mother has said, “[My son] speaks out for the average citizen.” He certainly did no less than this with his major survey So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich in 2010, in which he covered the entire museum’s façade with 9,000 children’s colorful school backpacks, like those he had seen in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. The backpacks spell out, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a direct quote from a mother of one victim.
Ai—whose assault by the Chinese police in 2009 resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage, and whose blog was shut down by the government in the same year—was detained on April 3, 2011 at the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong. His papers and computers were seized while his newly built studio in Shanghai was razed by city authorities (this past January). Ai’s whereabouts remain unknown and due process under Chinese law has been denied to him.
The Chinese government also stymied a petition for his release—begun by the Guggenheim Museum, circulated among art world citizens across the globe, garnering over 100,000 signatures over the course of five days, and visible on our own website—through a distributed denial of service attack. We are extremely disappointed with China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to “soft power” and cultural influence.
Here are a few lines from the Tao-te-Ching, the Book of Way:
Man, when he enters into life, is tender and weak
And when he dies,
then he is tough and strong.
That is why the tough and strong are
companions of death,
the tender and the weak,
companions of life.
For this reason:
If the weapons are strong, we will
not be victorious.
Have they forgotten, and who are they afraid of?
Phong Bui & the Brooklyn Rail