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What Is Going on With Ai Weiwei? July Updates

Image from a June protest on the steps of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. (via flickr.com/scotthessphoto)

We last posted on Ai Weiwei on June 30 with news of his associate’s heart attack. Since his release, news of the artist has significantly slowed. But he’s not out of the woods yet. Ai faces charges of mass tax evasion, and the normally vocal artist has remained disturbingly quiet. July has been a slow news month for Ai, but major events, such as hearings on his “crimes” and a new exhibition in Austria, have been taking place over the past few weeks.

Here’s an update on what’s been going on since our last post:

 On July 6, the New York Times reported that Ai Weiwei is working on new art. Swiss art gallery owner Urs Meile, who represents Ai, informed reporters that, “he is full of energy and again intensely dedicating himself to his artistic creation.” The next day, Artinfo suggested that Ai was planning on a project designed to “unmask apparatchik online commenters who are paid by the Chinese government to spout propaganda in Web forums.” It is unclear as to whether the conditions of Ai Weiwei’s probation, which include a year-long gag order, would enable him to pursue such a project.

 July 7 was also the day of a panel hosted by the Milwaukee Art Museum on art, politics and Ai Weiwei. The panelists included Melissa Chiu from New York’s Asia Society, Kathryn Kanjo from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Barrett L. McCormick from Marquette University and Brady Roberts from the Milwaukee Art Museum. According to the Milwaukee blog Art City, McCormick, as the chair of the political science department at Marquette, was the most valuable member of the panel, offering insights into Ai’s release. “Released is absolutely the wrong word here. We have every reason to believe that Ai Weiwei is surrounded by a thick wall of police and surveillance monitoring of all the coming and going in and out of his residence. Anyone who is a friend of a family member is at risk,” McCormick said. It is important to remember that while Ai was freed from prison, he’s not really free. The Chinese government is silencing a powerful dissident, showing their people that they can keep even the loudest voices quiet.

 Yet on July 13, Reuters made the announcement that Ai Weiwei accepted a visiting professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts. The Chinese government is still holding his passport, so it is unclear if Ai will actually be able to go. The university made the offer in April and considers it a positive sign that he was able to accept. The next day, the Washington Post published an interview with Ai’s sister, Gao, who detailed how Ai was not physically tortured, yet the Chinese government attempted to break him psychologically. He was confined to a tiny room with no furniture but a bed, and was followed at all times by two guards, even when on the toilet or in the shower. “Can you imagine the feeling of having four eyes always on you, no matter what you do?” she said. Gao also stated the likelihood that their whole family will leave the country. “If the country is really not suitable for him to stay, we can’t exclude the possibility that our family will all leave the country. My only hope is that he won’t be thrown into prison again,” she said.

 The Post along with the Associated Press further detailed the tax evasion case against Ai and his wife Lu Qing. The government is ordering them to pay approximately 1.8 million USD in back taxes and fines. Lu and Xia Lin, Ai’s lawyer, were in a closed hearing for over three hours on July 14. Both have stated that they are unable to prepare a proper defense due to the government seizing documents during a raid of Ai’s studio.

 Yet on July 11, The Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, opened a show of Ai Weiwei architecture. The show, titled Art/Architecture, focuses on collaborative projects like the Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest. It appears to be beautiful and extensive showing of Ai’s work. A video of the show is available for viewing at Vernissage.tv.

All of this news is both sad and hopeful. No, Ai Weiwei is not truly free. No one knows what kind of threats are keeping him quiet, and the kind of intimidation the Chinese government must be using to keep he and his family terrified of speaking out.

The Ai Weiwei arrest came at a time when the Chinese government is causing more “disappearances” and arresting more citizens than they have in decades. The Chinese government is attempting to keep their citizens from expressing themselves, and the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei was a perfect symbol of intimidation. And yet, for all their efforts to keep the people of China quiet, shows are still opening of Ai’s work, we now know what he went through in prison, and he may end up teaching hundreds of students in a foreign country.

There is hope. If the people of China are able to speak, people will listen.

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