From the Turbine Bridge, looking down into Turbine Hall, on the first floor of the Tate Modern gallery in London, one will see thousands of small porcelain sunflower seeds littering the room. The seeds were produced by artists working under internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Like almost all of Weiwei’s work, the seeds carry political significance. Chinese propaganda images during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, portrayed the Chinese people as sunflowers looking toward Chairman Mao, who was portrayed as the sun. The use of porcelain also makes a poignant criticism of the “Made in China” phenomenon by replicating a traditional Chinese craft on a mass scale. “It's a work about mass production and repeatedly accumulating the small effort of individuals to become a massive, useless piece of work,” said Ai Weiwei in a comment about the piece. The exhibition, entitled Sunflower Seeds, has recently attained a new layer of global political significance, however, since the detainment of Ai Weiwei on April 3.
Weiwei, perhaps China’s most prolific living artist and well-known dissident, was taken into custody by Chinese authorities in the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong. The authorities have remained quiet on the issue, citing “economic crimes” as their motive for detaining Weiwei. According to The New York Times, the Chinese government is investigating Weiwei for tax evasion, destroying evidence and distributing pornography, although its motives for opening the investigation have been difficult to verify. The speculative consensus on the issue is that Weiwei’s detainment marks a continuation of China’s draconic policy toward dissidents, which has intensified in the past few months, thanks in part to the movements toward democracy in the Middle East. The move on the part of the Chinese government has provoked criticism both at Cornell and abroad.
In response to Weiwei’s detainment, the Guggenheim Museum issued a petition calling for his release, which has since been signed by thousands of artists, writers, public intellectuals and curators around the world.
Weiwei’s supporters include the Johnson Museum of Art. “It is tragic what is happening with this wonderful artist. Ai Weiwei has been involved in not only aesthetic and artistic issues but also in wider, social and political issues, and it is deeply sad to think of how he is being treated. We at the museum support him,” said Frank Robinson, the Richard J. Schwartz director of the museum.
Given Ai Weiwei’s stature as an internationally renowned artist, China may now be faced with a more diverse corps of political critics. Kristen Ross ’11, an art history major, was among the petition’s signees. “I believe the petition is, and will be, influential because it represents how members of our global community are not willing to overlook governmental action that restricts freedoms of speech, individual creativity and expression,” she said.
While political freedoms have been restricted in China for some time, Weiwei’s detention illustrates that artistic freedom may not be possible in China, either. Ai Weiwei had been active in the Chinese dissident community for some time, and his artwork frequently reflected his political bent. In 2000, Weiwei organized a huge art show in Shanghai, called Fuck Off, which displayed avant garde artwork from around China. The show included Weiwei’s famous pictures of himself giving the middle finger to the White House, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the viewer.
Despite his outspoken nature, Weiwei was assigned by the Chinese government to work with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron as an artistic consultant on its design of Beijing’s national Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest. The project received widespread political acclaim, although Weiwei famously admitted afterward that the Olympics were the regime’s “fake smile” to the rest of the world.
In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Weiwei became a more vehement critic of the Chinese administration. His exposé into the crisis revealed that financial corruption had incentivized the construction of structurally inadequate schools, which killed hundreds of children when they toppled over during the quake. The investigation contrasted the stories of rescue and responsibility that the Chinese official news sources were telling.
It is not clear which act of dissent, if any one in particular, pushed the Chinese government to detain Weiwei. The complex circumstances of his arrest mirror the complex intentions of an enigmatic artist. Weiwei’s colleagues, including Cornell alumni, think of Weiwei more in terms of the interpretive nature of his thought rather than any particular political view. James Slade ’88 and Hayes Slade ’88 worked with Weiwei on his Ordos 100 project, a collaborative effort that brought 100 architects from around the world to Ordos, the capital of Inner Mongolia, to each design one house for a new development that Weiwei was spearheading.
“He’ll say something, and then you’ll think you get what he’s talking about, and then later you realize that you can interpret it in different ways. These comments could have to do with art or design and any number of other subjects. His comments often raise a number of different questions,” Hayes Slade said.
The Slades visited Weiwei this summer, right after the announcement of his show at the Tate. They offered congratulations, to which Weiwei flatly responded, “well, someone’s got to do it.” Wei’s modesty is perplexing, given the prestige of this grant. “It’s a very true statement, but it’s so open ended and not subjective that you can read all of these different subjective ideas onto it,” James Slade said.
In this regard, the mysterious nature of Weiwei’s musings is consistent with his philosophy toward art and life. “I always want to design a frame or structure that can be open to everybody,” writes Weiwei.