Ai Weiwei (Photo: Hafebar at de.Wikipedia)

How many policemen does it take to arrest an artist? Apparently about 50 if the artist is famed Ai Weiwei and the government is the People’s Republic of China.

On April 3, 2011, the dissident Chinese artist was forced from the Beijing airport and disappeared into the netherworlds of Chinese custody for 81 days. At the same time, what would be considered a SWAT team here swarmed Weiwei’s art studio, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., and swooped off with almost everyone who worked with the artist and a few relatives thrown in for good measure. They even got his driver. All those have been released since but were kept for almost three months without communication or formal charges.

Who is Ai Weiwei and why should you care? For one, Weiwei’s life and the furor surrounding it is a sort of microcosm of cultural and international affairs, particularly between China and the U.S. The Chinese artist, renowned in both the West and East, is becoming increasingly persona non grata at home because of his controversial activities.

The Beijing-born Weiwei spent more than a decade in New York and other parts of the U.S., where he networked, studied and found great success in the art world as a painter, sculptor, film maker and political activist. Weiwei grew to appreciate the artistic and political freedom he found in the U.S., and he has quietly defied the authorities of his homeland, with increasing frequency since the late 1970s. He returned to China in 1993 but has been free to travel and work globally, as the love-hate relationship with his government has unraveled.

Even as Weiwei’s fame skyrocketed in the West with exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and major art museums and galleries, he continued to needle the Chinese authorities over human-rights issues. Most of his jibes have been comical and somewhat lighthearted, occasionally obscene or disrespectful, but not full-out attacks or calls for insurrection.

Weiwei’s response to surveillance cameras placed outside his studio was to create his own artistic versions, some of them in marble. He sent these out to galleries and also photographed the photographers, using Twitter, thus fighting the police state with their own weapons. His unique response is to expose the threats and surveillance using social networking more extensively than almost anyone ever has. Reportedly Weiwei used Twitter in particular – anywhere from 3 to16 hours a day – as a tool for social and artistic criticism before his arrest. As virtual proof of the effectiveness, the Chinese government shut down his blog repeatedly.

Weiwei has enjoyed a type of immunity until recently, due to the popularity and prestige of his late father, poet Ai Qing, who is considered one of China’s most treasured modern writers. Beyond that, Weiwei and a few others brought a type of legitimacy and a very modern flavor to Chinese art, which was not really involved in the modern art scene until recently. The People’s Republic had been incarcerating, punishing and “reeducating” intellectuals, scholars and artists for the crime of not being farmers up into the 1980s at least. Old habits die hard.

Chinese authorities tolerated Weiwei and his political eccentricities as they coaxed art galleries and universities into establishing ties there. Chinese art, new and old, is very much in demand in the West. It is necessary to at least pretend there is a semblance of stability and breadth of intellectual freedom in China before investing time and money.

The Beijing National Stadium at night (Photo: Chumsdock Cheng)

Weiwei’s most recognizable accomplishment is being design consultant for the 2008 “Bird’s Nest,” the spectacular, $450-million Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Ironically, this cooperative effort signaled the beginning of a rapid demise of his relationship with the Chinese government. Weiwei felt personally betrayed and used as the Bird’s Nest began to resemble a dragon’s lair, devouring more than 6,000 homes and buildings. It quickly degenerated into a civil-rights-free zone with arrests for natives or foreigners who protested, prayed or distributed suspect literature.

The artist pulled back from the project and later that year began to massively criticize the government’s handing of the Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands were buried alive in poorly constructed buildings.

While the People’s Republic dragged its feet, Weiwei and others personally made efforts to identify the remains of victims with the Citizen’s Investigation project. Weiwei loudly criticized the lack of safety by public officials and has continued the outcry non-stop until his latest arrest. The government responded by labeling him a deviant, plagiarist, bigamist and “spreading indecent images on the Internet.” They also threatened to demolish his “illegally built” studio in Shanghai, a tactic often used against Christian churches there.

On April 3, 2011, Weiwei and associates were arrested and later charged with tax evasion to the tune of $1.85 million (U.S.) and of destroying documents. This applied to his Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a corporation similar to ones in the U.S. Under Chinese law, Weiwei and the others should not be accountable personally whether the BFCD paid its taxes or not. What is significant in this move is the apparent need to appease the West by using actual criminal charges rather than mere Party irritation.

Cpak Ming, giant stencil

It is a source of ongoing debate whether Westerners help or harm persecuted prisoners in China by making lots of noise and formal complaints. Yet the intensity and numbers of protests concerning Weiwei, an artist, may have caught the authorities by surprise.

After his arrests, thousands demonstrated in Hong Kong with similar groups in New York and Europe and elsewhere. Hong Kong artist Cpak Ming cast a giant image of Ai Weiwei onto military and government buildings.

Graffiti and stencils appeared overnight, with rock musicians, poets and actors joining the chorus to free Weiwei.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg and crowds of press and art representatives met as Weiwei’s sculpture “Zodiac Heads” was exhibited as planned, on May 4. Bloomberg commended the artist’s courage and remarked on “places that do not value and protect free speech.”

“Zodiac Heads,” by Weiwei (Photo: Spencer T. Tucker, New York City mayor’s office)

The U.S., Germany and other nations made formal diplomatic complaints, and many art groups are re-thinking their relationships with China, possibly for the first time.

Spokesmen for the Guggenheim, the Tate and basically the entire museum industry implied that this may “hinder future collaboration with the Chinese colleagues.” Art Basel Miami Beach, the biggest art event in the U.S., just bought majority share in ART HK (Hong Kong), which is the Asian showcase for leading modern and contemporary art. The timing has led some to call for a boycott.

Certainly repression of Christians, Falun Gong members and human rights activists have been ramped up in recent years in China with barely a peep from the art community in the West … until now.

The energy and anger evinced by Weiwei’s incarceration and mistreatment makes several things clear: One is that art and artists cannot be marginalized and discounted as a weak force any longer, even by a totalitarian regime. It is also remarkable that public figures and politicians stood up for these artists. German Chancellor Angela Merkle was especially vocal. Is it a coincidence that Weiwei and the rest were released just a few days before Wen Jiabao’s European visit?

Another unanticipated element in this power struggle is central use of social networking – how profoundly it is changing the way cultural wars are waged and how power is balanced. The Chinese government is apparently so threatened by internet and Twitter communications that Weiwei has only been released on the condition that he not use them for a year.

Looking back, will 2011 be considered the beginning of the Twitter wars?

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