Wu Yuren (image from newyorker.com)

Beijing-based writer and art professional Melanie Wang brought to our attention the upcoming November 17th court case of Wu Yuren, a Chinese photographer and installation artist whose provocative work and political activism have earned him the nickname “Little Ai,” a play on the artist Ai Weiwei’s reputation for not shying away from defiance in the face of pressure from the Chinese government.

Implicated in the 008 incident, which found police beating artists who would not vacate studios that had been rezoned and were due to be demolished, Wu Yuren was arrested and taken into custody after accompanying a friend to the police station to complain about the beatings. The artist later told a lawyer that “he had been dragged into a room by four or five police officers – his shirt pulled over his head so he couldn’t identify them – taunted and beaten,” reports The Globe and Mail.

Wu’s court date comes at a pivotal time for artists in the international media as Ai Weiwei has a studio forcibly demolished and is put under house arrest for planning a party. Ai has become an icon for his Sisyphean victimization by the Chinese government, but it is extremely important to also remember that the international superstar isn’t the only one suffering. What’s happening in the Chinese art world is the structural clashing of an unfriendly political environment against a restless cultural scene.

Wu is married to a Canadian citizen, Karen Patterson (@KPinChina). She hasn’t seen her husband since he was imprisoned on May 31. On the heels of his studio’s condemning and the artist’s mammoth exhibition at the Tate’s Turbine Hall in London, Ai Weiwei wrote an op-ed for British Prime Minister David Cameron. He writes:

Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn’t change its own behaviour. I don’t believe that these are western values. These are universal values. No one is forcing China to accept values from outside – they are just asking it to listen to its own people.

The artist also had some choice words for Obama and France [emphasis mine]:

Since the global economic crisis began, the change in global attitudes is clear to see – and I think it is pitiful. Barack Obama came to China and he is probably the only president of the United States never to mention the words “human rights” in public. You see it in France, with Hu Jintao’s visit last week. How can people be so short-sighted? How can they betray those basic values?

This is a watershed moment in which the paranoia of the government over artistic freedom is coming into the international public spotlight because of the significance of the country’s own artists. It’s an irony for world’s most prominent rising power to have such a silenced cultural voice.

The case of China and the self-censoring of not only art but individuals can’t be downplayed, and there is no simple way to depict it. The situation doesn’t boil down to the government versus Ai Weiwei, or the government versus culture. The best we can do is to be aware of what’s going on, and help these artists where and how we can and keep believing that artistic freedom is the highest freedom a society can aspire to.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...