Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest
In the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists complained of the impossibility of receiving redress from the English crown, stating that “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” That could be the tagline for the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman, except that the famous Chinese artist and dissident’s constant petitioning, closely detailed in the film, was never exactly humble. But then, neither was the colonists’. Like them, Ai Weiwei is courageous, self-confident, blackly ironic.
Between 2008 and 2011, Ai invoked China’s Freedom of Government Information Law to send government agencies more than 150 inquiries about the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, whose official death toll was nearly 70,000. When he received no response, he filed suit against the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
In the course of his work on behalf of such earthquake investigations, Ai suffered a police beating in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. This inspired a separate round of petitions and suits. Eight months after the beating, he returned to Chengdu to file an official complaint and request an investigation. Several months later, having seen no action, he returned again to Chengdu with the strategy of filing requests for a hearing in as many government offices as possible. This series of encounters with government officials—nervous, bored, perfunctory, violent—is one of the film’s most powerful segments, and also one that Ai has broadcast via Twitter.
When one journalist who accompanied him on these visits asked him why he kept at it, he was told by Ai that “you can’t just say that the system is flawed; you have to work through the system and show it in all of its detail; that’s the only way you can ultimately make a critique.”
Will Ai Weiwei’s efforts make any difference? He is an artist whose work of petitioning is straightforwardly political, but whose use of the blogosphere to publicize that petitioning is artistic and political at once. But what exactly is the relation between voice as expression—the artist’s voice—and voice as influence: the citizen’s voice? And do social media change that relationship? These are the questions raised by Ai’s in-your-face petitioning.
Historically, petitioning has been a fundamentally performative act. In ancient Greece, supplicants—those, for instance, who petitioned for asylum—chose dramatic public venues and made a spectacle of themselves: appearing, say, in their underwear or baring their breasts. Crowds gathered around to watch; knowledge of the controversy spread—and with it, questions about the justice, or injustice, of the ruler. By their strenuous moral demands, such acts of supplication jeopardized the political authority of the petitioned by raising questions about whether that party could effectively maintain moral authority.
Ai Weiwei has always had an eye for the point where art and politics meet in performance. During the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, Ai was in New York. The son of a famous Communist poet and intellectual, Ai Qing, he had grown up in domestic exile in far western Xinjiang province, to which Mao Zedong had condemned his father. Upon the family’s release in 1976, Ai went to Beijing and studied film until, frustrated by the Chinese government’s repression of artists and intellectuals, he moved to the United States in 1981. In response to Tiananmen, Ai staged a hunger strike in front of the United Nations, wearing a headband that read “Fuck your mother.” That would be a lot like sitting in the ancient agora of Athens in your underwear. It’s also a move that Ai has turned into art. Twenty years later, as a Beijing-based artist, he filmed an art project in which a series of eight people—he is the eighth—say, each in his own dialect, “Fuck you, motherland” while standing before a backdrop with the same text in Chinese characters.
To understand Ai’s expletive, though, we have to remember that this is the curse of a man who, in the end, decided to go home, both literally—he returned to China in 1993—and figuratively. Long ago, economist Albert Hirschman identified loyalty as the motive force driving the commitment to dissident self-expression. In Hirschman’s terms, Ai chose voice over exit. By returning home, he chose the voice of the artist and citizen instead of simply the artist. One commentator in the film says, “Among all the Chinese artists I know, he’s probably the only one who, deep down, really cares about this country and what happens to it.” Yet the import of this choice didn’t unfold to its fullest extent until the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
* * *