The New School China Today

The New School China Today

Lexington Books. All rights reserved. Freedoms and Democracies Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. Chapter 2 Love the Future Alice Ming Wai Jim Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. Ai Weiwei and Art for Human Rights Mention human rights and contemporary Chinese art these days and invariably the name of internationally renowned artist, architectural designer, and activist Ai Weiwei (b. Beijing, 1957) comes up. The “bearded man” or “the fat guy whose last name is Ai,” among the many code names the Twitterati use to refer to him, is a celebrated icon of online activism in China as well as one of the country’s most prominent contemporary artists. In recent years, his artistic output has been virtually inseparable from the issues and campaigns conducted from his weblogs and microblogging accounts, making both his art and activism (he does not distinguish between the two) intrinsically linked to the proliferated use of social media in the digital age. Ai’s intersecting careers as prominent artist and digital activist and his experiences of censorship and unlawful detention thus demand contextualization within wider debates concerning basic democratic freedoms and civil liberties as well as the rise of Internet culture in the so-called New China since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1990s, and the global dimensions of such conditions. This chapter focuses on the connections between Ai’s political art, human rights activism, and use of global media techniques of dissemination over the last decade. It elaborates on the local and global contexts from which Ai’s human rights art emerged and on which its reverberations continue to be felt. The first sections discuss the circumstances of his art practice and human rights discourse, particularly in relation to freedom of expression and the repression of political dissent, as situated within the contemporary history of the struggle for political and civil rights in China. The second half of the chapter explores the Hong Kong exhibition Love the Future, arguing that Ai as a political meme that went viral not only online but also in practicable public spaces, created new platforms as well as social contexts where art and activism could be seen to converge, blurring conventional understandings of both and contributing to the advance of human rights in global Asia. The chapter asserts that empowerment may emerge, not so much from access to global information through the Internet, but from the locality’s ability to organize and mobilize local understandings connected to regionor country-specific human rights issues. As such, its arguments complement the discussions by Bodden and Turner in this volume of the ways that local and national contexts powerfully frame and shape the global and what is understood as “universal.” In a span of less than two decades since his 1993 return to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the United States (US), Ai’s has become a revered, feared, and, at times, criticized figure of global significance in both the art world and human rights parlance. A month before his first survey exhibition in the United States Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. —According to What?—opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Mark Stevens in the September 2012 issue of the Smithsonian magazine asked its mostly American readership: “Is Ai Weiwei China’s most dangerous man?” In October 2012, the London-based international art magazine ArtReview named him the most powerful artist in the world based on his political activism as much as his artwork (the previous year he topped its annual “Power 100” list as the most powerful figure in the artworld).[1] Despite the long-drawn-out and constant media attention over the years or perhaps because of it—so diverse are opinions on his status as a good enough artist, politician, revolutionary hero, or, from the Chinese authorities’ perspective, enemy of the state—the artist was unable to attend his D.C. opening. He could not leave China because the authorities delayed in the return of his passport held since his detainment in April 2011 and subsequent year-long house arrest, by then technically lifted, on allegations of tax evasion. More precisely, charges of tax fraud amounting to twelve million yuan (US $1.85 million) in back taxes and fines were ordered to be paid by FAKE Design, the architectural firm Ai founded in 1999.[2] In China, the charge of “economic crimes” is the choice pretext of the state to preempt accusations of human rights violations. As Andrew Cohen explained in Asia Art Pacific on June 23, 2011, “the charge of ‘tax evasion’ (a threat to collectivism) carries the same stigma as the charge of ‘communist subversion’ (a threat to individualism) did during the McCarthy era” in the 1940s and 1950s. Ai’s imprisonment was widely presumed to be related to his many previous run-ins with state security over his unreserved criticism, both online and off, of government corruption and China’s suppression of freedom of expression. Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. LOVE WEIWEI: THE CREATIVE DISSIDENT On May 9, 2012, Ai was jointly awarded the New York-based Human Rights Foundation’s inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, with Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The awards ceremony was held at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Oslo, Norway. Still under house arrest, Ai accepted his award via live video feed. The award title may seem ironic given that he not only has consistently rejected the label of “dissident,” insisting he is merely an artist, but also expressed his opinion later that year in The Guardian on September 10, 2012, that art in contemporary China “does not exist. In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretense.” Much writing, including his, has been dedicated to elaborating on the artist or committed political blogger’s larger concern with civil society and the absence of human rights in the autocratic Chinese state. Ai’s stature in the social imaginary has, in fact, harked back to the 1989 prodemocracy protests in Beijing and the Chinese government’s brutal military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. As the new millennium’s symbol of one man’s ability to challenge state corruption, he has been compared to the “Tank Man,” the lone, white-shirted civilian who stood in the way of advancing armored Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. tanks the morning following the June Fourth Incident. Ai was not in China in 1989; still in New York since 1981 until news of his ailing father brought his return to Beijing in 1993, he was granted a green card as part of the amnesty that followed the international outcry over the tragedy of thousands of lives lost during the violent suppression. Remarkably, in addition to sharing the prize money, the three Havel laureates each received an artist’s representation of the iconic thirty-three-foot Goddess of Democracy statue erected by Chinese student leaders during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. According to the Václav Havel Prize website: “Each sculpture embodies the spirit and literal reality of creative dissent at its finest, representing the struggle of truth and beauty against brute power.” Set up on May 30, 1989 between the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Tiananmen so it could face the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, the original Goddess of Democracy was plowed into and toppled five days later by tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. Intended or not, through the miniature Václav Havel Prize version of the Goddess statue, Ai’s activities were symbolically linked to the rise of online activism as what sociologist Guobin Yang calls “internet contention” (popular protest that may spill offline but takes place mainly in cyberspace), which can be traced to the student movement in 1989 when the Internet was barely known in China (not being widely available until after 1996), but was instrumental in connecting student protestors inside China with the Chinese diaspora and overseas support (Yang 2008, 126). The Goddess statue itself in fact has often been taken as a visual reinforcement of an international audience’s narratives of Western liberal democracy. Art historian Wu Hung however has stressed that the Goddess of Democracy should not be confused with the American Statue of Liberty whose physical form it resembled (because it intentionally and distinctly represents a young Chinese woman) and, moreover, that the statue was “a monument that was intended to be destroyed” (Wu 2005, 46, 49, italics in original). Collectively constructed and consistently surrounded by protestors only to be trampled over, the Goddess statue’s image and symbol of collectivity thus contrasts greatly with that of the single individual carrying out his lone act of defiance before the tanks (Leung 2010). The problematic reinforcement of liberal ideals such as individualism through “a rhetoric of international shaming” is, according to Godfre Leung (2010), what is at stake in the “democratic spectacle” (using Robert Hariman and John Lucaites’s term) of the lone Tank Man. The internationally mediatized political crisis subordinated local acts of selfdetermination and collective self-organization, such as the planned symbolic suicide of the Goddess statue intended to expose precisely the nation-state’s suppression of freedom of expression, to a universalized liberal vision of global order divested of local specificity and response ability (Leung 2010). “We grew up in a Communist era —a communal society—so our behaviour is inalienably tied to the sense of group, be that ‘nation,’ ‘class,’ or ‘enemy of the State.’ . . . No one has any individual rights, so they don’t have any responsibility. Everything belongs to the State or to money” (Ai quoted in Smith 2008, 13). In the end, Ai’s everyday human rights talk, its grand Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. assertions and abstract arguments in the name of universal human rights are not immune to what the present book’s editors identify in chapter 1, as the complex mediation of Asian-values claims associated with Confucian tenets: “For artists and intellectuals today, what is most needed is to be clear about social responsibility. . . . You don’t have to march on Tiananmen, but you have to be clear-minded, to find your own way of expression” (Ai with Chin-Chin Yap 2003, 51–52). Ai’s reprimand also alludes to the key role that self-censorship plays in discouraging contention in China, requiring, as Kevin J. O’Brien and Rachel E. Stern write, the consideration of “ex ante suppression through socialization” (as opposed to ex post repression postcrackdowns) to better grasp “how collective action is suppressed” in China (2008, 24). Parenthetically, the timing of his D.C. exhibition coincided with the 2012 US presidential campaign, which would see Barack Obama, America’s first Black president reelected for a second term on November 7, 2012 and a barrage of antiChina-rising rhetoric during the debates—the latter which Ai’s exhibition was seen as abetting. Undoubtedly bolstering this view are the artist’s numerous parallel interviews, essays, and tweets opportuned by his first major survey in America as much as by his celebrity activism. Caught between nationalist sentiments (jiuguo, “saving the nation”) and international pressures, Ai has consistently expressed his bleak view of China’s position on human rights, which, from its present untenable developmentalist perspective, argues the majority of Chinese are, as Jonathan Jones notes in The Guardian on April 4, 2011, “broadly satisfied with the tacit deal— growing economic prosperity in exchange for political limits.” The artist has also not been reticent in his criticism of the US inaction towards China’s rampant violation of human rights, notably on CNN the day of Obama’s reelection. Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. FROM OLYMPIC DISOBEDIENCE TO CIVIC DIGITAL ACTIVISM In populist terms, Ai shot to fame in China in the second half of 2003 working in collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron on the design of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet it was his political outspokenness, insurgent rants, and civic activism that particularly put him in the international spotlight as well as under increased government scrutiny. Ai openly denigrated the Games as a state propaganda machine, publicly relinquishing his involvement altogether a year before the building was completed. Concomitantly the PRC has been witnessing the recent emergence of a continental Asian discourse since the Olympics that is largely political in character and highly nationalistic, contrasting with the previous Asian Olympic discourse that had consistently emphasized “‘the economic’ as distinct from ‘the political’” though with “notable political and cultural dimensions” running through it (Close et al. 2007, 139). Referring to forced evictions to build Olympic venues and the pre-Olympics crackdown and persecution of political dissent, Ai denounced the state’s utter disregard for basic Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. human rights and accurately anticipated that the state would suppress dissent and locality-specific protest in spite of the international attention. Certainly the period leading up to the Beijing Olympiad was not without worldwide criticism concerning China’s poor human rights record and calls to boycott the Games. Domestic media for the most part took preemptive self-censorship measures regarding negative criticism about anything related to the Olympics, a practice which also extended to cultural events such as Synthetic Times, the state-sponsored international new media art exhibition at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, which was lauded as a 2008 Beijing Olympics Cultural Project intended to showcase China’s internationalism. The situation certainly did not auger well for manifestations of political dissent by local and international athletes and artists, nor subsequent developments for human rights progress and the curtailment of persistent media censorship. Drawing the world’s attention to China in 2008 were also two other earlier events. The first was the outbreak of violent protests against Chinese rule and the subsequent crackdown in Lhasa, Tibet, in March. Reporting on the riots from Beijing, Richard Spencer noted in an article reprinted in the Montreal Gazette on March 21, 2008 that in concert even “the city [of Beijing] was under martial law in all but name.” The second event was the Sichuan Earthquake on May 12, 2008, which killed an estimated eighty-six thousand people, among them over five thousand schoolchildren buried alive in their classrooms because of “tofu-dreg schoolhouses”—the term indicating corruption and negligence, coined by prominent writer and civil rights advocate Tan Zuoren to describe the poorly constructed buildings. On the last day of 2008, Ai spoke disparagingly about how: “We are living in an era . . . and a social situation . . . in which the individual still cannot express his or her will. . . . Everyone, artists in particular, should think about why even today, in 2008, after the Olympics, Chinese are still stuck in such a situation” (2010, 9). The Bird’s Nest was Ai’s last official engagement with architecture as he turned his attention almost exclusively to making art and engaging more intensely with civil activism and social media, such as Fan Fou. Created in 2007, Fan Fou, the shānzhài Twitter (Twitter clone) is China’s earliest microblogging site and offers weibo services similar to Twitter, which was created in 2006. In 2005, the year Chinese websites established their own blog channels, Ai accepted the invitation of the Chinese online media company Sina (xīnlàng, “new wave”) to host a blog which he ran on the Chinese-language web portal, Ai began almost immediately to comment on judicial procedures and state affairs on his blog and for the next four years would post images and texts two to seven times a day. When the government censored his blog and then deleted its entire contents in 2009 at the end of what has been called the short-lived golden era of blogs in China, more than 2,700 posts as well as thousands of photos and millions of reader comments disappeared. While making no claims at great citizen journalism, his entries spoke to a wide range of topics including, for example in 2008 alone, the Tibetan unrest, the tainted Sanlu milk powder scandal, the Weng’an riots in Guizhou province over the alleged cover-up by local police of a girl’s rape and murder, the Human Rights and the Arts : Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by Susan J. Henders, and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from newschool on 2019-10-02 18:26:10. Copyright © 2014. Lexington Books. All rights reserved. controversial execution of a Beijing resident for killing six Shanghai police officers known as the Yang Jia case, the Olympics, and the ongoing aftereffects of the Sichuan Earthquake. Curator and art historian Karen Smith astutely points out that Ai’s “blog provides an extraordinary insight into his particular process, to the ways in which ideas take shape and the degree of experimentation with materials and structures that transforms ideas into models into artworlds” (2008, 17). An example is the unprecedented participation of 1,001 Chinese nationals from different backgrounds and regions of China, who traveled, many leaving their villages for the first time, to Kassel, Germany, for the international art exhibition documenta 12 as part of his ongoing Fairytale Project. These individuals were first recruited through an open invitation published on his blog; some three thousand applications were received within three days. The most extensive example of Ai’s overlapping human rights activism and ethicoaesthetic concerns, however, is arguably his call and response to the Sichuan Earthquake school disaster. By December 2008, the Chinese government’s sustained lack of acc …

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