A magnitude 8.0 earthquake shook through Wenchuan County in Sichuan province of the People’s Republic of China on May 12, 2008. Official figures listed 69,197 dead, including 5,335 children, mostly killed as a result of shoddy school construction — a horrible tragedy, particularly due to China’s one-child policy, that caught the attention of a couple of artists, including the now infamous Ai Weiwei.
Ai had courted controversy before by being publicly outspoken about the Beijing Olympics, but his response to the Sichuan earthquake brought him into the sharp focus of the Chinese government. Working with a number of locals and other artists, he compiled a list of names of the dead schoolchildren, trying to draw attention to their plight at the hands of the local governments and the lack of oversight in building the schools.
He was beaten by police as a result, then later put under house arrest. In 2011 he was arrested and detained in a secret location for almost three months, until finally being released and charged with tax evasion. He remains under house arrest at his home and studio in Beijing.
Throughout all of this, Ai has remained vocal; he is an avid tweeter and a popular interview subject. No matter what they do, the Chinese government just can’t seem to get him to stop talking.
Long-time friend and collaborator Larry Warsh has organized a number of Ai’s notable statements from Twitter, interviews, blogging and other publications into a little book entitled Weiwei-isms.
Divided thematically, it covers all manner of topics related to Ai — his politics, his philosophy, his artistic practice and more. While there are certainly more in-depth looks at the artist and his output and opinions, this quick little read is like the Coles Notes of Ai Weiwei and offers insights I hadn’t previously considered.
A number of the quotes simply highlight what we already know: Ai is outspoken, he feels the government is too controlling, and the people of China continue to suffer under Communist rule.
While Warsh attempts to place Ai’s thoughts into categories, it is actually kind of frustrating to have them organized in such a way, implying the quote can or should only be considered under one context. A little organization certainly helps to break up a huge slew of quotations, but I wonder if a chronological breakdown would have been more interesting. It would have allowed the reader to see how much stronger (or otherwise) his statements have become and what event in his life might have precipitated what opinion or thought more clearly.
Perhaps my favourite quote in the entire book is this: “I have no sense of why I lost my freedom and if you do not know how you lost something, how can you protect it.” Ai occasionally writes for The Guardian, and this quote is from the very first paragraph of a June 2012 article about his feeling stronger than ever in standing up to the Chinese government.
In the article, that one line seems to get lost. Standing alone, Ai’s vulnerability jumps off the page, and it strikes me that Ai being vulnerable emotionally is not something anyone talks about much. The Chinese can certainly be a proud people, but someone who has gone through what Ai has gone through would have to feel beaten down from time to time. It adds an additional, human layer to someone who’s emotional strength seems almost superhuman at this point.
By far the most prominent topic running through all the categories is the idea of art as a means to freedom.
Ai turned to art because he felt he would be able to speak more freely than in any other possible profession in China, according to a number of provided quotes. For Ai, the call to art is not necessarily about needing to express a deep emotion, but instead about expressing anything at all.
In North America, we take for granted that an artist can produce art questioning, for instance, the stigma of AIDS on homosexual men in the 80s as A.A. Bronson and many others have done. That kind of art is unheard of even in contemporary China — simply asking to be able to say what you want can have you harassed by local police for the rest of your life.
Ai has taken this idea so far that he will never be out of the watchful government eye for as long as he lives. His only saving grace is that he stealthily courted the art world and the international media, making his remaining alive important to the world opinion of China.
The most amazing thing in all he’s done is something we do every day: question the choices of his government over the internet. There would be six billion fewer people in the world if all governments suddenly started treating their people the way China does. Weiwei-isms provides an excellent reminder of just how important Ai’s cause for free speech is, in a surprisingly humanizing manner.
Image: Forever by Ai Wei Wei.