Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest
If we wish to understand the relationship between the expressive voice of an artist and the influence-seeking voice of a citizen, we would do well to think about the social importance of mourning. What can be more purely expressive than a cry of grief, the effort to commemorate? Yet societies in different times and places have long known that such purely expressive cries are very destabilizing. Grief often leads straight to anger—and anger, commonly, to calls for action.
Think again of the Greeks. Think of Antigone. Ancient Athens put limits on the right of women to mourn in public, and Pericles concludes his funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War by enjoining the women to silence. In May 1999 during the Kosovo war, Serbian wives and mothers took to the streets by the thousands because relatives they had sent to the front fourteen months earlier had not come home from tours of duty that were supposed to last only twelve. Because the unrest threatened to evolve into war resistance, the government dispatched a leading general to the provinces “to defuse the anger of the women.”
When on May 12, 2008, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province in western China, roughly 7,000 classrooms collapsed. For seven days after the temblor hit, Ai—who had been blogging daily since 2005 on Sina Weibo—didn’t post any entries at all. The scenes of children’s backpacks strewn amid the dusty rubble silenced him. When he did start to blog again, his project was mourning.
Ai first visited the devastated region in June 2008 because he wanted to use the names of the dead schoolchildren in an artwork to commemorate the tragedy. He sought information from the Sichuan Post-Quake Reconstruction Office and recorded a cellphone conversation, featured in his 2009 documentary Hua Lian Ba Er (Dirty Faces), in which he is told, “The death toll is a secret.” Indeed, the government was not forthcoming with statistics about the dead, and because so many schools had collapsed, suspicions of corruption-fueled, shoddy building practices (“tofu construction”) began to circulate widely. The official death toll of 68,712 was released in late July, two and a half months after the quake. The government paid the parents of the dead schoolchildren for their silence.
Having petitioned the government for information and been denied it, Ai made another “ask.” He put out a call on his blog for volunteers to catalog the names of the dead schoolchildren. One woman who responded says in the film: “One day I saw a [blog] entry he wrote about investigating the student deaths from the May 12th quake. He said he was seeking volunteers to help him do this work…. The volunteers went to every town to ask parents and schools for the names of the dead.” With blog petitions, Ai built a team of fifty researchers to collect the names of deceased students in towns across Sichuan province.
At last, on May 3, 2009, a year after the quake, Ai announced on his blog that his Sichuan Earthquake Names Project had achieved a final tally: 5,212 dead students. In response, on May 5, the government finally released its own tally with a slightly higher number: 5,335. On May 12, the actual anniversary, Ai posted all 5,212 names. On May 29, his personal blog was shut down. On May 31, Ai signed up for a Twitter account. On June 2, China blocked access to Twitter across the mainland in anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Ai then used a Web proxy, VPN or other circumvention tool to leap over China’s Great Firewall and keep on tweeting.
On Twitter, he began a daily posting of the names of the dead children on their birthdays. He used a major September 2009 exhibit to commemorate the students, covering the façade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst with 9,000 backpacks in a piece called Remembering. And in 2010, for the second anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, he decided to post recordings of individual people reading the names of each lost child. Via Twitter, he sent out another call and, in a country where Twitter is illegal, was able to post 4,546 spoken names.
In describing this project, Ai says: “We are always trying to think of a way to get everyone involved. The earthquake anniversary [was] coming up so I think this method is very good. It helps everyone to learn about using resources, making recordings, and sending messages online…. The content [of the project] is respect life and give [people] a way to find a new communication and to reach out.”
In April 2011, the Chinese government detained Ai for eighty-one days and then imposed a major fine on him for tax evasion, as well as restricting his right to travel outside China. In July 2011, when a deadly high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou was first reported on China’s microblogs, the volume of blogosphere commentary was simply too great to censor. For all of censorship’s power, grief for the dead finds out its limits. Ai Weiwei could be detained, but his example could not.
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In December 2009, Ai signed Charter 08, a dissidents’ reform manifesto, which declares:
The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law…[and] especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people…. we see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant.
One of Ai’s supporters puts the same points in more personal terms: “What we want is normalcy, just a normal society in which we can express sorrow and mourn death, where those who do wrong are punished, and those who do good for society are encouraged, not jailed.”