Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

Courage is envisioning and articulating freedom that is yet to be actualized. Angela Davis talks about this—imagining change is the first step of making change. One year after his release following months of detainment without due process, Ai Weiwei wrote:

I often ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again. My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.

…none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm…

Stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom. They can delay that freedom but they can’t stop it.

(“Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom,” Guardian, June 21, 2012):

Further, even as a known target of one of the world’s most secretive and repressive governments, Ai remains an optimist:

What I gained from the experience is a much stronger sense of responsibility, and an understanding of what the problems are and how one can understand what’s happening and remain a positive force. You have to see your own position from the other side. At the same time you have to maintain a passion for what you are doing. You have to have sensitivity and joy. If you don’t have that, you will be like a fish on the beach, drying up on the sand….


Human Rights Watch: Ai Weiwei Case Reflects Disregard for Rule of Law

Here’s a very good position on Ai Weiwei’s release from Human Rights Watch’s website, posted June 22, 2011, with the subtitle, “Unlawful, Unwarranted Detention, and Onerous Restrictions Loom.” It sums up my sentiments exactly.

The release of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei on June 22 is a relief for his family, friends and supporters, but leaves troubling unanswered questions about his arrest, detention and conditions of release, Human Rights Watch said today. In particular, Human Rights Watch is concerned about the political nature of his arrest, the conditions under which the police may have extracted a “confession” from him, and possible restrictions on freedoms he faces following his release….

“The Chinese government’s decision to arrest Ai Weiwei was political, and so is his release,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is also an example of how international pressure works, since Beijing was paying a high cost to its reputation for his detention.”

…In the past six months, the Chinese government has disappeared and/or arbitrarily detained dozens of activists, writers, lawyers, and others. Upon their release, several have retreated into uncharacteristic silence and seclusion, leading to concerns that they have been threatened with further abuses if they speak out. At least 10 others who are less well-known than Ai have been victims of enforced disappearances since mid-February. They remain incommunicado, their whereabouts unknown, and thus are at high risk of torture in custody.

“International pressure apparently prodded the Chinese government to conclude that the cost/benefit ratio of continuing to detain Ai Weiwei wasn’t worth it,” Richardson said. “The international community should maintain that same pressure for the release of the many other innocent victims of the Chinese government’s current wave of repression.”

Or as the Daily Beast put it:

Released but not free

Speaking to The Daily Beast/Newsweek by phone, Ai said he has been restricted from traveling outside Beijing or giving substantive interviews to the press for “at least a year.”


Ai Weiwei and the search for justice

From Christopher Bodeen, “Artist Ai Weiwei released by China, says he’s fine,” Associated Press (6/22/2011):

Renowned artist Ai Weiwei, the most high-profile target of a sweeping crackdown on activists in China, returned home late Wednesday after nearly three months in detention. Looking tired and thinner, he said the conditions of his release meant he could not talk more.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Ai confessed to tax evasion, accusations his family had long denied and which activists had denounced as a false premise for detaining him….

“I’m sorry I can’t (talk), I am on probation, please understand,” Ai said, speaking in English….

…Jerome Cohen, a top expert on Chinese law at New York University… said Ai was most likely released on a form of bail that restricts suspects’ movements to their home city for one year. However, authorities can reopen the case at any time, meaning Ai faces the ever-present threat of being detained again on the same accusations….

“It’s quite a step back for the regime. It demonstrates the utility of large amounts of international attention, plus international connections that had been sufficient to keep him out of jail before,” he said.

Ai’s release might also have been a face-saving move, coming just days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was due to travel to Hungary, Britain and Germany, countries where supporters of the artist have been vocal in their condemnation of his detention.

A relief. But not justice.


41 Days since the PRC disappeared Ai Weiwei

Per, the authorities should have charged or released the detained artist five days ago. Continuing to detain Ai without filing charges is a violation of China’s criminal procedures.

Still, Ai Weiwei: A Conversation, Tate Channel

Still, Ai Weiwei: A Conversation, Tate Channel

Still, Ai Weiwei: A conversation, Tate Channel

Still, Ai Weiwei: A conversation, Tate Channel

The Tate Modern posted a short, moving video with clips from Ai Weiwei’s October 20, 2010 interview at TM, as well as shots of his Sunflower Seeds installation in Turbine Hall. Presciently, an audience member asks Ai, “Why aren’t you in jail?”

Ai’s response:

“I don’t want to stop myself; maybe I will be stopped by some other kind of force. You know, life is like that. I think you have to take chances.”

Ai’s Zodiac Heads public sculptures opened last week in New York, and this week in London. Tom Scocca posted a pointed article in the Washington Post on May 4:

All that’s missing this time around is the artist — a humiliation inflicted by China on itself….

He provoked the system, in a seemingly open-ended piece of performance art, by pretending it was reasonable and accountable that an ordinary citizen had the right to dissent.

Disappointed with the poor coverage of the recent US-China human rights talks, I was glad to read that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratcheted up the rhetoric on China’s human rights violations in her recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly (May 10, 2011). The discussion focused on the Arab spring and Middle East peace process, but in passing Secretary Clinton said,

we have encouraged consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and recognition and protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human rights record….

Goldberg: And (the Chinese) are acting very scared right now, in fact.

Clinton: Well, they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.

Spoken at the Zodiac Heads ceremony:

Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.

(Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art, Guggenheim Museum, via Roberta Smith on NYT)

Ai’s disappearance is likely part of a crackdown following the Arab spring, which the artist warned Dan Rather about just 10 days before his disappearance. Dozens of thinkers, bloggers, radicals and reformists have been detained. As the PRC refuses to charge or release Ai, it seems more likely that the intention is suppression — to repress a Jasmine Revolution in China. In fact, the Chinese authorities are even taking steps to ban jasmine (see Andrew Jacobs and Jonathan Ansfield’s “Catching Scent of Revolution, China Moves to Snip Jasmine,” New York Times, May 10, 2011), the word and the flower, as if they could suppress inevitable change and progess:

the Chinese characters for jasmine have been intermittently blocked in text messages while videos of President Hu Jintao singing “Mo Li Hua,” a Qing dynasty paean to the flower, have been plucked from the Web…. the police issued an open-ended jasmine ban at a number of retail and wholesale flower markets around Beijing.

For continued coverage, see Eyeteeth, a Minneapolis-based art blog that posts excellent round-ups of news related to Ai Weiwei.

Art & Development, Research

in Guangzhou this weekend?

The Guangzhou Triennial opens this weekend, and the program sounds fantastic.

I really enjoyed my 2001 visit to Guangzhou (Canton). Guangzhou is the major city in Guangdong—the large southern region including the Pearl River Delta and original home to something like 90% of Chinese immigrants who came to California prior to the 1965 Immigration Act. Guangdong is also where my maternal and paternal ancestral villages are; both family lines can be traced back several generations (as many as 26, on my mom’s side) in that region.

Anyway, during my visit I found Guangzhou to be really cool—a bustling metropolis full of young people breaking from the past. The triennial program sounds like Guangzhou is finally getting into the game with some forward-thinking contemporary art practices—a contender to Hong Kong’s and Beijing’s dominance as top art centers in China! I’m especially fascinated with the program’s theme.

For the curatorial discourse of this Triennial, we propose to say ‘Farewell to Post-Colonialism’. This represents the theoretical basis from which we hope to explore our critical vision. The Triennial attempts to open new frontiers for creativity with a critical review of the role cultural discourses of Post-colonialism and Multi-culturalism has played in contemporary art. While affirming Post-colonialism’s achievements in exposing hidden ideological agenda in society and inspiring new art, this Triennial also critically examines its limitations for creativity, and calls for a fresh start.

We hope to uncover elements of the paradoxical reality veiled by contemporary cultural discourse, to make contact with realms that slip through the cracks of well-worn concepts such as class, gender, tribe and hybridity. We hope to think together with artists and investigate through their practices to find what new modes and imaginative worlds are possible for art beyond those already heavily mapped out by socio-political discourses.

GZ Triennial will host 181 artists from over 40 countries around the world, including 50 films/videos from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa under the projects “Middle East Channel”, “East-South: Out of Sight” and “Africa: Personal Poetics”….

(By the way, if you think that China is monolithic and closed, as most Americans think, I should mention that one of the things I learned on my visit were the significant numbers of African immigrants in China, who often study in the universities.)

The 7 “Forums in Motion” of the 3rd Triennial is a long expedition that traverses across a wide terrain of ideas which focus on Farewell to Post-Colonialism, Limits of Multi-Culturalism, Thinking Through the Visual, … Anxiety of Creativity and Possible Worlds and Farewell to Post-colonialism — Towards a Post-Western Society?

Saying farewell to post-colonialism and peering into the future for glimpses of a post-Western society— or the century to follow the American Century—is something that really resonates with my installation, Binary Pair, in Galleon Trade: Bay Area Now 5 Edition.

THANKS to everyone who made it to the opening last night! I had a blast and it was so nice to see smiling faces and hear respected colleagues’ impressions of the work! If you missed it, stop by YBCA before October 19 to catch the show — it’s almost all new work, featuring 5 CA artists paired with 5 Manila-based artists.


Proud to be Chinese American

What they say about opinions—everybody’s got one—is why I’ve been reluctant to voice my own. But in the midst of cynical, derisive, Other-ing coverage of the Olympics, the know-it-all attitudes about democracy and environmental consciousness constantly declared by my fellow Americans, and the shrill, divisive allegations of “shill” at the slightest hint of nationalism, I’m starting to reach the end of my rope.

China’s wrongs make a long list… Sudan, Tibet, the Three Gorges Dam, human rights, the environment, air quality, state-controlled media, restrictions on free speech and freedom of the press, the Cultural Revolution…. You’d have to live under a rock to avoid these valid complaints registered as China seeks respect in the global community.

But I’m skeptical that, unless you’re a politician or a writer for the New York Times, your carping bothers China more now than before. This is a country with 5,000 years of history and culture, and a very recent revolutionary past. How pompous it is to think that the PRC would just adopt Western ideologies if the blogosphere disses it enough. China has undergone massive changes in the past few decades, and I hope that its forthcoming changes will do more good than harm. Still, my fellow Americans seem to lack the most basic knowledge about Chinese history, people, and culture, and in place of the willingness to participate in a true discourse with Chinese people, I’ve witnessed major cynicism.

What bothers me most about this suddenly pervasive criticality of China’s policies is the colonial subtext that Westerners are more advanced; we know better.

But are we more advanced?

Americans committed frightening acts of environmental devastation during our Industrial Revolution. In the process of becoming a world superpower, we’ve deforested our own “land ‘wooded to the brink of the sea'” (as described by Pilgrims quoted in Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History, 103), fraught our American cities with the “‘frightful infliction'” of coal smoke (Freese 149), and created horrifying Burtynsky-esque quarries.

But that’s all in the past, you might argue, Now, we recycle, eat organic goat cheese and drive hybrid cars! But the fact is, while air quality may have improved, we’re continuing to do exceptional damage to the atmosphere: North America is responsible for 46.4% of carbon emissions in the world, and has been consistently responsible for far more carbon emissions per capita than any other region.

So we want China to do as we say, not as we do. We want China to stop burning coal to manufacture cheap goods, but we can’t stop buying stuff. We want China to improve the quality of life for its migrant workers, but we can barely mobilize our own representatives and workforce to hold American corporations with cut-throat practices like Walmart responsible for treating workers decently, much less negotiating higher standards among overseas manufacturers. We want China to improve its human rights record, yet our own government refuses to adhere to the Geneva conventions at Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, or in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program (see A.C. Thompson’s and Trevor Paglen’s Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights).

Seems hypocritical to me.

“The” Chinese

The Olympics coverage also brought to light how some Westerners have a habit of saying “The Chinese” to connote a monolithic race, a country of bicycle-riding, uniform-clad, ageless Orientals, where everyone is blessed with “ancient wisdom” but ignorant of, say, the effects of pollution.

It sounds positively Borg-like. In Star Trek,

The Borg were a pseudo-race of cybernetic beings, or cyborgs, from the Delta Quadrant. No truly single individual existed within the Borg Collective (with the possible sole exception of the Borg Queen), as they were linked into a hive mind. Their ultimate goal was perfection through the forcible assimilation of diverse sentient species and knowledge. As a result, they were among the most dangerous and feared races in the galaxy.

If this doesn’t sound like the fictionalization of a stereotype of inscrutable Asian Communists, I don’t know what does. If I sound bitter, it’s because I’ve witnessed firsthand how a casual conversation among Americans can move from steel manufacturing to Chinese coal to dog-eating in 30 seconds flat.

However, I’ve been to China, and I can testify that China is more diverse than most Americans expect. There are, in fact, ethnic groups. There are regional dialects, cultures, even cuisines! Also unlike the Borg, people think for themselves.

I could do without the perception of homogeneity, as well as the condescension of Chinese culture and people—such as my neighbor’s singalong to the Chinese national anthem, with only the words “ching” and “chong.”

Uneven Criticality

I could also do without MSNBC’s broadcasters trying “weird” food, since with all of the criticisms lodged against China, you’d think there would be more critical thinking on Americans’ own tourist gazes.

The tourist gaze seeks out visual representations that reinforce difference, based on one’s values, culture and identity. In other words, you only see what you want to see. I saw this borne out in my visit to China: Maoist propaganda was widely available, but only in tourist areas. Clearly, a state and a populous are two different entities. I, for one, would not wish to be lumped into the same group as our current presidential administration, yet many Americans find no problem lumping together the Chinese state with Chinese people.

The extent of the wolfish savoring of Chinese difference seems especially clear in the coverage of the lip sync flap. I believe this news item was lambasted beyond reasonable proportions because it suits very old American perceptions of Chinese people — corrupt, manipulative and untrustworthy. As Bret Harte wrote in his 1870 poem, “The Heathen Chinee”, Chinese people are peculiar for their “ways that are dark / And for tricks that are vain.”


An example of the offhandedly derisive coverage; in this author's blog, the lip syncing flap warrants a judgment of China as a whole. SF Examiner.

Of course, it is completely hypocritical for Americans to cast judgment. Americans have been known to be superficial and manipulate because of it, too: Remember Zelma Davis lip-syncing Mary Wash’s part in C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat”? And we don’t spare children from our media culture either: it’s not a stretch to imagine that the freakish longevity of the obsession with JonBenét Ramsey is abetted by her doll-like image in pageant photographs. How easy it is to be critical of China, rather than actually do something to reform our own standards of beauty, and the way women and girls are valued.

The Rugged Individualist

With erudite disdain characteristic to the New Yorker, George Packer (“The Only Game in Town,” New Yorker Magazine, August 25, 2008) wrote about the opening ceremonies

Was this a front, or had the government realized that the patois of mushy togetherness is now a lingua franca, not least in commercials, and thus well worth acquiring? On every seat was a sack of goodies, and we were duly taught to rattle our drums, wave our Chinese flags, shake our funky light sticks….

I understand Packer’s skepticism of the Chinese government, but really, sometimes a glow stick is just a glow stick. Relax! Is putting aside one’s individuality and cynicism to show unity with people from around the world at the Olympics breaking your moral compass? That’s like attending a youth conference and trying to look cool by not participating. What’s the point?

Americans, it seems, can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that Chinese culture has always emphasized group identity (family, village, and, yes, the state) before individual identity. To a jaded journalist, waving a glow stick feels uncomfortably like being a mindless shill in the grand machinations of the PRC. But I imagine if a Chinese person believes that the Olympics is biggest thing to come to China in his or her lifetime, waving a glow stick is a way to be part of a group bigger than one’s self, village, and even, one’s state—an exhilarating opportunity for people in a society that’s been closed for so long.

There was a time not too long ago when China-bashing was reserved for job protectionists, Ford/Chevy owners, and pro-Tibet movements; that seems like the good old days. I’m afraid, though, that now that the tongues have been unleashed, the economy worsens, and the American Century twilights, much more mindless China-bashing is in store. I know my fellow Americans don’t take their freedom of speech for granted, but I wish they’d be a little more thoughtful and curious about the world with it.