An Inside Perspective on Ai Weiwei

The international outcry continues to intensify five days after China’s detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei, and Human Rights Watch has called Western governments’ response “toothless.”

We brought together three experts on the issue to discuss the reaction within China, the relationship between art and activism, and the international response. Alison Klayman is the director of upcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Austin Ramzy is the Beijing correspondent for TIME. Melissa Chiu is Vice President, Global Art Programs and Museum Director at Asia Society.

Artlog: Is there a difference between how Ai Weiwei is regarded internationally versus within China?

Alison Klayman: For one thing, he’s never had a major museum show in China, but in the last 2 years he’s had 3 shows internationally – Mori Museum (Tokyo), Haus der Kunst (Munich), and the Tate Modern in London.

I also think the coverage he receives domestically, in terms of mainstream Chinese press, is mostly confined to fashion, design, and style publications. So a “Western” audience is probably reading more of his political statements in their press. On the other hand, he tweets and blogs exclusively in Chinese, so mainly a Chinese audience was consuming his writing, but that was still a small audience compared to the population of the country.

Austin Ramzy: The work he does politically is obviously viewed differently here. Most of what he does, like the investigations he supports, are meant for a Chinese audience, even though they aren’t covered in the domestic press.

Artlog: Is Ai Weiwei’s political engagement unusual for a Chinese artist? Is there any sense that he has influenced other Chinese artists?

Austin Ramzy: As far as political activism, I would say he is unusual. There aren’t many artists in China that pursue sensitive topics as aggressively as he does. People touch on things, sometimes for the sake of sensationalism. But to be so involved in subjects like the Sichuan earthquake, I think that’s rare.

Alison Klayman: When I interviewed his friends and peers from the ’90s and early 2000s, right after he returned from New York, there was a tremendous sense that he influenced a lot of the young avant-garde artists in Beijing. Especially artists that had never spent significant time abroad. In terms of political activism, I agree with Austin, his depth of engagement and dedication to the causes and projects he launches is certainly unique.

Melissa Chiu: I think Ai Weiwei was especially important when he returned to china. many artists of Beijing’s East Village have said how he was a mentor to them, even suggesting the name of the East Village. This was around 1994, and since this time he has become something of the godfather of the art world.

As far as his political engagement, I have often seen his political activism as quite sperate from his art, since his art rarely deals directly with political issues.

Artlog: How has China’s art community responded to Ai Weiwei’s detention?

Melissa Chiu: It’s hard to say because few people want to directly communicate about it. One artist in Beijing hung up the phone when asked about Ai Weiwei. Caochangdi has been overun with police.

Alison Klayman: The petition published in the Guardian the other day included the Gao Brothers. But in general, I think it’s not easy for people entrenched in China to speak out

Austin Ramzy: I think that this is probably quite difficult for people close to him, as there was the feeling that he enjoyed a degree of protection. But within the broader art community I think people have been quiet, likely, as Alison says, because of the sense of fear.

Melissa Chiu: I don’t think we can underestimate what it’s like to live in a country where you know that there is little legal recourse should you be arrested. Ai Weiwei has been cast as a political artist, a dissident – what are people’s thoughts about that? I’ve always seen his activism as being quite different from his art.

Alison Klayman: Over the course of my documentary project, I started to see the distinction between art and politics less and less and started to believe he lives his life as art. Clichéd, perhaps, and I think he knows the difference between when he’s making art and when he’s posting on Twitter. But I think there’s something about his life and activities as a whole that I think has symbolic value.

Artlog: Does Ai Weiwei see himself as part of a Chinese tradition of dissident artists and intellectuals?

Melissa Chiu: I’m sure he sees himself in this tradition. And I’ve heard him identify with his own father, poet Ai Qing, who was persecuted during the cultural revolution. His art has almost been sidelined by his political projects and comments made on twitter and his blogs. Seeing it wholistically is, of course, one way to look at it.

Austin Ramzy: I spoke briefly with Ai’s mother today, and she mentioned Ai Qing and the influence he had on their son. She said that both his positive and negative qualities came from him, and she felt that he shared his father’s trait of thinking about others before himself.

Alison Klayman: He will never be thought of just as a political dissident, though. Will any news piece be written about Weiwei and not mention the title “artist”? Just like Ai Qing is always remembered as a poet.

Austin Ramzy: That’s what makes his case so interesting. For another Chinese dissident to get this much attention, he has to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alison Klayman: There will also be a demonstration this weekend in Hong Kong.

Artlog: It seems like the unveiling of Zodiac Heads in New York will be a political event.

Alison Klayman: Do you mean in terms of the political significant of the work, or because there will likely be a demonstration of support if he’s still detained?

Melissa Chiu: Let’s not forget the fact that the chinese government argued for the repatriation of the heads when two of them went to sale.

Austin Ramzy: I think this goes to the earlier point about different audiences. The Zodiac Heads would be inherently political to a Chinese person

Alison Klayman: Totally. To everyone else, they’re just some animal heads. And I think that’s what Weiwei was going for.

Artlog: What kind of shift are we observing in Chinese policy towards major figures in the arts?

Melissa Chiu: There was certainly a relaxation of government attitudes this past decade towards artists. This new crackdown feels a lot like the post-Tiananmen period.

Austin Ramzy: I don’t think there’s been a shift that’s been made public, but it’s clear that it is a very difficult time for anyone to speak out about anything remotely sensitive. This is the sort of thing you will only be able to measure years in the future, but I wonder if it will have a noticeable affect on what artists produce.

Artlog: Is the international reaction having an effect on Chinese policy?

Austin Ramzy: Two years ago when visiting Beijing, Hillary Clinton basically said the US would not push as hard on issues like human rights. And while the US still raises the cases of people like Ai Weiwei, I think the Chinese government realizes how thinly stretched the US is.

But at the same time, there’s at least an informal acknowledgment by the Chinese government that this doesn’t look good for them. That’s why they say the police are investigating Ai for economic crimes and this has nothing to do with human rights.

Alison Klayman: Like today’s Global Times piece? “Authorities should learn to be more cautious and find sufficient evidence before detaining public figures next time,” says the Party-controlled Global Times.

Austin Ramzy: Right, like that Global Times piece. This is the line I was think of, “If Ai’s ‘suspected economic crimes’ are justified, the conviction should not consider his ‘pro-democracy’ activities.”

The line Alison quoted was quite strange. It almost accuses the police of going on a fishing expedition, searching for anything to charge him with. Both of those articles were twisted in amazing logical knots.