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Ai Weiwei, “White House” (1999) (image via artnet.com)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is still missing after his arrest over a week ago, so the story now turns around how the arrest is being discussed in international dialogue. US, German and French officials have called for Ai’s release, but others, including one German museum director and a segment of Chinese netizens, publicly disagree with Ai Weiwei’s personal political methods.

According to the European Sign and Sight, Martin Roth is a “mandarin of the German art scene and the head of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden,” the same museum that helped to organize the now-contested The Art of the Enlightenment exhibition in Beijing’s newly-renovated National Museum (the German government has called for the removal of loans and closing of the exhibition following Ai’s arrest). Yet Roth doesn’t agree — he considers Ai simply an obnoxious agitator in an art scene full of whiners.

In the weekly German newspaper Zeit, Roth is quoted as saying that Ai Weiwei “is so popular [with the Western press] because he is constantly pounding on the table.” “There are hundreds of artists like him, but no one talks about them, because they are not pop stars.” In fact, the German art scene has been particularly supportive of Ai, staging some of his largest exhibitions. Ai was even in the process of building a studio in Berlin before the arrest. Whether Roth’s attitude is just a hatred of contemporary art, a hatred of Chinese contemporary art, or the simply misguided thought that Ai deserved to be arrested, the comments are unexpected for any art world figure.

Martin Roth (image via signandsight.com)

Sign and Sight argues that Roth’s comments endorse “a system of injustice and violence. Martin Roth has repudiated the world of German culture. He owes an apology. It is his duty to support the cause of Ai Weiwei.” It’s strong language and I mostly agree, but what bothers me with Roth’s quote is the derision of his tone, not quite the statement he makes: it’s true that many other artists are speaking out against the government, but they don’t get media play in the West because they’re not high profile or successful enough.

Even while Ai is enjoying strong support from within the Chinese art world, there are those that believe Ai is getting what he was asking for, if not what he deserved. Ai’s outspoken critiques of the Chinese government and his international visibility and celebrity in doing so has drawn criticism to the artist for being too much of a provocateur and an ineffective activist. In a response to New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos’s “Why Ai Weiwei Matters,” China blog China You Ren writes,

Many of us who (mildly) oppose all this Ai Weiwei fad don’t do so on the grounds of irrelevance, but for other more important reasons.  In particular, we fear that the disproportionate focus of Western media on characters like Nobel-winner Liu XB [detained writer Liu Xiaobo] or Ai [Weiwei] is counterproductive, and it can undermine the democratic dissidence in China.

The article argues that both Ai and Liu Xiaobo are extreme radicals, not representative of the majority of the Chinese people’s desire for pragmatism and slow, independent change. Ai and Liu are too Western-leaning for the nationalistic author of the post, and their artistic practices and political commentary too iconoclastic:

More crucially, both share a taste for expressing their views or creating “art” by means of destroying  the things that are dearest to all Chinese who love their country, communist or otherwise:  their history, their culture, their wounds of the colonial period … Neither of them should be arrested for their ideas. But this doesn’t qualify them as political models either.

Ai has lately been the target of a character assassination attempt similar in tone by state propaganda mouthpiece Global Times. Articles accuse Ai of plagiarizing ideas for artwork and being out of touch with the Chinese people, an irrelevant egomaniac and criminal. The claims in the China You Ren post and government propaganda are by no means true, but it’s important to remember that there’s another side to international perception of Ai that we should be keeping in mind as we wait for news from the Chinese government.

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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,...

7 replies on “The Backlash Against Ai Weiwei”

  1. I was talking to an artist from Beijing about it the other day, and he had a similar response. He didn’t think Ai should have been arrested, but he questioned his politics & art … It sounded like he thinks that Ai’s work is basically one-liners designed to provoke.

    1. It is really interesting how his work is received in China versus how it’s received abroad. There’s a split in Chinese opinion that’s almost totally absent in the west.

  2. Since this Martin Roth is so knowledgeable, I wish he could provide a list of a hundred artists who can speak up and do groundbreaking work like what he did regarding earthquake victims alone, as that would be a great help. I suspect he cannot- being but an apologist and a lackey.

  3. Surely the very point of protest art is to provoke? It wouldn’t be very effective if it just agreed with everything.

  4. Any artist with the international stature of Ai Weiwei will by default, be surrounded in controversies, wether with regard to the legitimacy of the work, where it stands with respect to an ever shifting definition of plagiarism, or whether or not they are grandstanding. Fame brings scrutiny, recognition breeds ego, and artists challenge the staus quo.

    But the validity of the outcry over Ai Weiwei’s disappearance should not rest on how we regard his output. At this very moment, we are watching as 10s of 1000s of people speak out to claim their freedom and we are watching them in conflict with their respective governments. We watch as they are killed, imprisoned and tortured for speaking their minds, for being human. Ai Weiwei’s is no more or less important than any one of these individuals, but he is an iconic figure on which we can focus our outrage to these collective injustices.

    There was a speech made after 9/11 (I believe by a rabbi and here I am paraphrasing wildly) where it was said that we can not understand 3000 deaths in one instance, that is just too unfathomable, but what we can begin to comprehend is one person dying, over and over, 3000 times. For us, in the art world, perhaps Ai Weiwei becomes this one person.

    When Eman al-Obaidi (the lawyer in Libya who came public about being raped by Qaddafi’s forces) was seized again as she was making her allegations of abuse, I watched, horrified but unable to comprehend either her courage or her fate. I did not make anything in response, it was too removed from anything I could imagine myself doing and so there was nothing internal for me to draw on. But I CAN imagine defying authority for the right to do my work and when Ai Weiwei was seized it was almost automatic for me to respond by making something, after all, this could be my voice that was being silenced and then what would I be left with? Nothing!

    IMHO I believe this is what is behind much of the art world’s reaction, it is not so much about saving an individual as it is about there being a person to whom we can point and say “this could be me, this is my voice you are stifling and I won’t be silenced”

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