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Ai Weiwei: Free But Gagged

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Download Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been released after nearly three months of detention.

But the outspoken, regime critical artist has been forced to remain quiet and to stay in China, a condition for his release.

But what do people know about his art, aside from the fact he designed the chinese Olympic stadium, the ”birds nest”?

Our reporter Ric Wasserman went  to New York City to find out.


The set of 12 bronze animal head sculptures, the chinese signs of the zodiac, reflect the sunlight  splashing up from their venue at the Pulitzer fountain in midtown New York City.

The zodiac heads, copies of those pillaged by english soldiers from a Beijing monastary in the 19 century weigh three tons each.

They were made by the chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The works have caught the interest of many as they pass the exhibition on 57th street.

”We read about it in New York magazine, We also heard about on the news that the mayor had made an effort to try and get the artist to come to NY and obviously failed to convince the chinese authorities to release him. But we think that these are just marvelous representations and tremendous work.”

The artist Ai Weiwei has just been released after being arrested at Beijing airport on April third.

Never formally charged, he was told his crime was tax evasion.

In reality Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment was likely due to his harsh criticism of the Chinese government.

He lashed out through his blog at the corruption involved in the building of poorly constructed schools which collapsed during the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, killing 70, 000.

5000 of the dead were school children.

A local school class is here today at the exhibition in Manhattan, craning their necks at the huge zodiac heads of a goat, dog and ox and other animals, trying to figure out what sign of the zodiac they are:

”I like the dragon because I’ve never seen a real live dragon before.”

But sculptures like the zodiac heads are one of many types of styles and forms Ai Weiwei works in.

A short underground ride away in the Chelsea district is the largest gallery of contemporary chinese art in the US, Chambers Fine Art .

They have a large collection of the works of Ai Weiwei.

David Clements is the director.

”I think Ai Weiwei is really unique amongst chinese artists and to a large degree he’s really different from any artist in the world today. Which is I think part of the reason he’s become such a prominent global figure. There are few examples of artists today who truly live their life...there’s no distiction between their art and their life. That is true of Ai Weiwei, and that is why his politics have become such a big part of his art, his social stances. There’s almost no distinction and that makes him unique from both chinese artists and western artists in general.”

Most chinese artists are extremely proud of the great advances the country has made, says David Clements.

But Ai Weiweis criticism of the rulers and his stand for human rights has cowed many chinese artists  to silence.

”A lot of them respect Ai Weiwei but at the same time don’t want to speak too negatively about the country they’re proud of. So it’s a difficult situation. On one hand they want to support the artist but they also don’t  want to attack their country, because they are very patriotic and proud.”

But what about Ai Weweis artistic influences?

Chambers Fine Art gallery director David Clements says Ai Weiwei was always fascinated by the thought of just what makes something art?

Ai Weiwei found a 5000 year old urn in a Beijing market and painted the Coca-Cola logo on it.

”He became very interested in what, where is the value in what these objects come from? And this ties back to his probably greatest artistic influence who is Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp is of course famous for his readymades and taking an ordinary object and questioning its value and maybe calling it art. His most famous is his toilet bowl piece that he put in a museum and said, does it have value because its now in a museum? Ai Weiwei began to do the same thing with these old objects and it's a a real question of: is it art? Is it real? Is it fake?”

So it’s no wonder that Ai Weiwei is called the chinese Andy Warhol.

But while Andy Warhol was a master at commercializing the mundane, Ai Weiwei often makes the physical connection between art and real life.

When he went to Sechuan after the 2008 earthquake, he created an installation called ”Remembering” shown at Haus de Kunst in Munich Germany.

It’s made of 9,000 childrens backpacks, in a clear reference to the loss of children’s lives due to shoddy building practices linked to official corruption.

Ai Weiwei said at the opening: ”The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda and very soon everybody will forget everything.”

This got him into serious trouble leading to a beating by chinese police which put him in the hospital.  

Two years later he was jailed, starting a worldwide appeal for his freedom and for human rights in general in China.

24 blocks south of the fountain where Ai Weiweis ”Zodiac Heads” are displayed is the symbol of New York City.

The Empire State Building. The organisation Human Rights in China is located on the 33rd floor.  

Its founder, Gao Wenquin was once the Chinese Communist Party’s official biographer, until the Tienamin Square demonstrations, when he sided with the students and fled to the US.

Gao Wenquin sees Ai Weiwei as a unique artist:

”You can say that Ai Weiwei is a chinese artist with conscience. In China today such a person like him is very rare. The one thing the government is really upset about is Ai Weiweis challenge of the political system. We need to put the detention of Ai Weiwei in a bigger perspective. Because of the accumulated social conflicts during the past 20 years you can say that right now China is like a powderkeg. It’s approaching a breaking point.”

This is the first time pressure from the international community has forced the chinese to make a concession on a political dissident.




1) gagged: dibungkam

2) monastary: biara untuk para

3) tremendous: sangat besar, luarbiasa

4) mundane: duniawi, membosankan

5) shoddy: buruk

6) sculpture: seni pahat, patung

7) pillaged: dijarah/dirampas

8) tax evasion: penghindaraan pajak

9) cowed: meanukut-takuti10) urn: kendi/kuali


1) Why was Ai Weiwei in prison?

2) Why is he forced to stay in  China after being released 

3) What are some of his recent artwork and where are they displayed?

Why is Ai Weiwei called the Chineses Andy Warhol?

4) Who is Gao Wenquin and what did he say about Ai Weiwei?

5) Where was the installation 'Remembering' exhibitted how and what is it about?


Last Updated ( Monday, 04 July 2011 18:08 )  

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