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Ai Weiwei Watch: Guggenheim Petition, Tate Sign, Street Art Response, Harvard Protest [UPDATE 3]

by Kyle Chayka on April 7, 2011

For the latest Ai Weiwei news, see our newest post

Today Hyperallergic is launching Ai Weiwei Watch, a permanent liveblog of the events and issues surrounding Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s arrest. Our initial two liveblogs covered the artist’s detainment and early news, but the controversy has gone international, provoking diplomatic reactions from France, Germany and the US, statements released by major artists and uncountable words of commentary online and in print. This post will collect any and all news, including translations from Chinese sources. The latest: Ai is being charged with “economic crimes,” and even though the government argues “the law won’t bend” for Ai, his detainment is actually illegal under Chinese law. Another studio assistant has gone in for questioning and photos are being published from inside Ai’s studio, post-arrest.

See below for continuous updates on Ai’s situation, in reverse chronological order by date and time. Our previous coverage can be found in our first and second arrest posts.

We’re now counting updates in the headline of this post to let you know when we post news and what you may have missed. We’re starting at [UPDATE 1] right now, at 2:11 PM April 8. See specific timestamps for posts below.

If you have any questions, email Kyle [at] Hyperallergic.com.

6:22 PM EST APRIL 8 [UPDATE 3]:

Student Guerrilla Protest in Support of Ai Weiwei at Graduate School of Design Event:

Today, a planned event at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design was briefly interrupted by a student guerrilla action that involved a student running to place a chair and coat on the stage to represent Ai Weiwei.
The discussion is part of the current The Divine Comedy, which takes place in three different campus location and includes the art of Ai along with works by Olafur Eliasson and Tomas Saraceno.

Eliasson and Saraceno were in attendance at the early evening event in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rebecca Uchill, who is in attendance at the event, sent us the following images of the action and the following description of the event via SMS:

The mood is serious. Audience applauded when third chair was placed on stage. Tomas and Olafur and the moderator, Sanford Kwinter, all acknowledged the absence of Ai. Olafur speaks about ideas of unpredictability, the desire (of insurers ie) to negate risk by making the world predictable but it isn’t. At one point a student approaches the stage and removes the coat, another student returns the coat to the stage later in the discussion and the conversation pauses deferntially. Lecture ends with applause and thanks for Ai ‘in effigy.’

The first image depicts the student picking up a chair and coat, the next depicts the student placing the chair on the stage, the following is of the coat being placed on the chair, and the final is of a page prepared by the guerrilla protesters with provocative questions for the audience to address to the empty seat — it was handed out to the audience before the event began.
[Note: Ai Weiwei was not meant to attend the lecture, the empty chair was a symbolic gesture]

2:16 PM EST APRIL 8 [UPDATE 2]:

Local Voices Support Ai Weiwei:

Local Williamsburg bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown has shown an emphatic support for Ai Weiwei with a sign outside the store announcing the publication of Ai’s blog as a book (see update 1). Check out a photo of the sign below.

Photo by Hrag Vartanian

1:58 PM EST APRIL 8 [UPDATE 1]:

Tate Sign:

First off, just check out what London’s Tate Modern has done to protest Ai Weiwei’s arrest. The museum has installed huge letters on the glass top of its building spelling “Release Ai Weiwei.” It makes an amazing statement.

Tate Modern’s Ai Weiwei sign

Photo from Twitpic via @robbiesharp

Guggenheim Petition:

New York City’s Guggenheim has lead NYC museums in creating a public petition to free Ai Weiwei. The petition is addressed to the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China and initial supporters include Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, LACMA’s Michael Govan, Kaywin Feldman of the AAMD, who is also director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, and Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota.

They write,

We members of the international arts community express our concern for Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to “soft power” and cultural influence.

Our institutions have some of the largest online museum communities in the world. We have launched this online petition to our collective millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers.  By using Ai Weiwei’s favored medium of “social sculpture,” we hope to hasten the release of our visionary artist and friend.

The petition is available for anyone to sign, so I encourage you to go and make your voice heard. It is statements like these from internationally respected cultural institutions that will pressure China to clear up Ai’s situation.

See a New York Times write up on the petition.

Creative Time has joined in the chorus of NYC arts organizations decrying Ai’s arrest in a statement published today. They write,

Creative Time firmly believes that artists and citizens alike are entitled to free expression in China and around the world. We rely on artists to envision and shape a more just and equitable global community. Ai Weiwei is an internationally regarded figure whose work encourages us, as a society, to sympathetically address the plight of the disadvantaged and oppressed. His incarceration is shameful and we are greatly concerned for his safety. We call for his immediate release by Chinese authorities.

It’s great to see more organizations stepping up to speak out.

Ai-Inspired Street Art:

Formal responses to Ai’s arrest have trickled out through diplomatic offices and cultural figures, but others have gone straight to the streets to make themselves heard. The original street protest for Ai Weiwei was probably the sign Ai’s mother hung near their home as a kind of Missing Person poster. Here are a few examples of Ai Weiwei protest street art, collected from around the internet.

The first is by Berlin’s Platoon Cultural Development, accessed through Flickr.

“Where is Weiwei?” by Berlin’s Platoon Cultural Development (image via flickr)

The group has also put up missing posters all over Berlin.

This poster was found in Hong Kong, via @katiegrube.

Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei poster in Hong Kong (via @katiegrube)

This poster was found on in DC, also via @katiegrube (originally here).

Ai’s Status:

China commentators speak in a group interview on Artlog. The Chinese government’s statements, through Global Times, have been sending mixed messages, seeming to accuse police officers of fishing for a reason to arrest Ai Weiwei. The government is by no means monolithic, so this could signal some internal confusion over Ai’s status and possible crimes or charges.

In the Guardian, Isabel Hilton argues that under the shaky definition of Chinese rule of law, Ai may be guilty simply for the fact that if the government wants him to be, he is. Law isn’t really a stable standard to go by in China, and it’s difficult to judge Ai’s case in terms of that structure.

Art Asia Pacific notes that it has been over 120 hours since Ai disappeared.

http://twitter.com/#!/artasiapacific/status/56356701712027648ace

  • In a strong statement, Germany has called for the closing of the Chinese Enlightenment exhibition that has marked the renovation and re-opening of Beijing’s National Museum. Three German museums lent work to the exhibition whose message now seems ironic and misguided: “The Chinese government’s approach to dissent shows how little the values of the Enlightenment have to do with contemporary China.”
  • Ai’s now-defunct blog on the Sina website has been translated and turned into a book by MIT Press. Hyperallergic has a copy, so we’ll be checking it out as soon as possible. The book collects Ai’s posts, from political rants to cultural musings and random updates.

3:12 PM EST: DUYAN PILI SPEAKS ON POLICE INTERROGATION

Ai Weiwei’s studio assistant Duyan Pili (@duyanpili) was recently called in for questioning by the police. Duyan warned others through Twitter before going to the police station, and then documented the experience on Twitter. I’ve translated the Tweets into English, then reposted Duyan’s Tweets about the police questioning below.

English:

1. From 6 PM to 10 PM last night, Officer Zhang of the Beijing Public Security Bureau at Nangao Police Station questioned me about Ai Weiwei’s studio, touching on subjects like the Sichuan earthquake investigation, the studio’s staff, personnel and their names and incomes, Ai Weiwei’s artwork, sale of the work, media projects and so on. During that time, one man claiming to be from the Chaoyang [a Beijing district] sub-bureau, a man in plainclothes by the name of Zhao, verbally abused me, grabbing me, threatening me, snatching my cell phone… after all of that, I refused to answer any more questions.

2. They asked me the names of other staff members. I said, there are many volunteers [at the studio], too many to write down all their names. Zhao insulted me: “You big SB [Chinese slang for stupid cunt], SB, I didn’t beat you at the police station… after you leave, I’ll sort out [punish] you and your husband. Think you can you take a slap from me? Hitting you, I’d feel dirty; my own hand would offend me.”

Then I asked the policeman, how can this be? Then he said, I’m not a policeman, I’m assisting the police. If I rough you up, so what? — Beijing police are all like that!

3. Unbelievable. First, they confiscated and inspected my bag, shut off my cell phone, and a policewoman carefully inspected my clothes. She made me take off my shoes and inspected those too, made sure I didn’t bring a tape recorder. So that’s why they could so brazenly insult me.

[@li2nd suggests that if the police curse you out, you can hit 110 on a cell phone to summon a superintendent squadron to show up and check it out.]

 

4. Only after it ended did they give me back my cell phone. At that time, I should have grabbed my cell phone and reported the police. Regretfully, I lacked the experience to do it.

5. Goodnight to everyone, God Ai, Wen Tao, and all missing persons.

Original Chinese:

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12:36 PM EST APRIL 7:

Photos From the Studio

Sina Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) user and apparent Ai studio worker feifei0621 (Weibo registration needed for access) has posted photos from inside Ai’s studio, post-arrest. She notes that electricity is back on in the space, but the internet is still cut.A later message says that the electricity went out again. One photo shows phones clustered around a power strip. Another photo shows a computer station. See the photos below, plus translated captions:

Photos from inside Ai Weiwei’s studio (image via feifei0621)

Photos from inside Ai Weiwei’s studio (image via feifei0621)

Feifei’s last update just says “Ai…” as an exclamation of frustration (think “uggghh”), but the character (哎) is only one radical away from the Ai in Ai Weiwei (艾). Funny. Feifei is also on Twitter.

Ai’s Status

The most recent new on Ai Weiwei is that the artist was arrested and is being detained not for government subversion but for “economic crimes.” A quickly-deleted news story on China’s Xinhua wire had the headline “Ai under investigation for suspected economic crimes.” Ai’s lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, has said that no specific charge has been announced.

The Chinese government has a history of using false or trumped up charges to catch anti-government figures; rather than attempt to try them for subversion, it’s often easier to detain a writer or activist for credit card fraud or tax evasion, as can be seen in these charts and lists of Chinese arrests. It will also be harder for the international community to directly pressure the Chinese government into freeing Ai, since there’s no moral or political basis for an “economic crime,” and proving the charge false would be difficult. There were rumblings of those charges in the fact that police officers earlier investigated Ai’s studio, checking the visa status of foreign employees and confiscating records and data after the arrest.

Ai’s studio assistants have gone in for police questioning, with Chinese as well as international employees being investigated. Studio assistant @Duyanpili was the most recent to “sit down for tea” with the police (a Chinese euphemism for an only semi-legal questioning by police, often under political pressure and threat of retribution). He has said that he will update his Twitter with news of the questioning. Sutdio assistants have been extensively questioned and pressured to stop working; at least one foreign assistant has left the country entirely. Not even Ai’s cleaning staff is safe — one woman who returned home to Anhui for a festival was later “captured” there by Beijing and local police and flown back to Beijing. She was later released.

The state-run party mouthpiece Global Times newspaper published a story saying that Chinese law “won’t bend” for a “maverick” like Ai Weiwei, which is ironic, seeing that the duration Ai’s arrest and detainment without an official charge is entirely illegal under Chinese law. Chinese netizens (active internet users) have denounced Ai’s detention and the government’s flimsy explanations. “爱未来” (love the future) has become shorthand for the artist’s name which is somewhat censored from text messaging and social media, “艾未未”. Ai’s family has called the economic crime charges “absurd,” but also say that they don’t think Ai Weiwei would accept any kind of charge at all. “If he’s not given justice, he’ll refuse to come out, I think. That’s his character,” Gao Ying, Ai’s mother, says.

In the end, all we currently know is that Ai Weiwei and reporter Wen Tao, a close friend of Ai’s, are still missing. Ai is being charged with trumped up economic crime charges, but no official charge has been made. While international pressure mounts to come clear with Ai’s charges and an explanation for the arrest and detention, it’s up to the Chinese government to make the next step.

International Reaction

So far, French, German and United States displomatic representatives have spoken out against Ai’s arrest and have called for the artist’s release. In the American art world, Melissa Chiu of Asia Society and Walker Art Center director Olga Viso have made statements in support of Ai. Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota and artists Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson made a joint statement calling for the artist’s immediate release.

Dia Art Foundation director Philip Vergne has also released a statement saying “Ai Weiwei‘s detention is both tragedy and his triumph over barbarism.” In a speech, US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (who just stepped down) said that future US ambassadors “will continue to speak out in defense of social activists like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.” New York Times art critic Holland Cotter responds to the chance that Ai won’t be able to present a sculpture in NYC opening May, “If China prevents Mr. Ai from appearing as scheduled at the sculpture’s debut here on May 2, much of the rest of the world will be united in demanding to know why.”

Ai has even been the subject of some protest art, with a street poster and this flyer, with a suggestion to call China’s Berlin embassy and ask about the artist, via Mymoma on Tumblr.

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