On June 21st, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei completed his one year probationary period, to which he had been sentenced after spending 81 days in jail last year on tax evasion charges. Ai had come to the attention of the Communist Party after a series of pop performances that (more or less blatantly) portrayed the Chinese political system as inhumane and unfair. Some of these performances were rather subtle, like the one he staged at London’s Tate Modern Museum in 2010. Ai paved the floor of the main entrance hall with millions of porcelain sunflower seeds – sponsored by Unilever – that could be stepped upon by visitors (eventually, visitors were prevented from stepping on the seeds because of fears that porcelain dust could be harmful to visitors). His first widely-reported performance was a collection of pictures of himself dropping Chinese Neolithic vases to the ground, or painting them with “Coca-Cola” logos. And on Twitter, Ai is more explicit in his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.
Ai celebrated his newfound freedom by posting a picture of himself dropping the release certificate to the ground. Then he told the British newspaper “The Guardian” about the emotional void he felt after his release. It seems that the prison system has become almost a part of the artist himself and of Ai Weiwei’s personality. He is the son of a poet, Ai Qing, who was prosecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and with whom he spent the first years of his life in a labor camp. “Never Sorry,” a documentary about Ai by US moviemaker Alison Klayman, documents a great episode about him. Happily completing a drinking session with some fans and acquaintances, Ai spots a white car parked nearby, with an observer in it – clearly a plainclothes police officer. Ai approaches the man and starts to question him. The police clerk is forced to flee, in embarrassment. Ai Weiwei turns to the camera and celebrates his triumph.
We have seen this sort of relationship between dissidents and authorities before. During his seven month home-detention, the Chinese activist Hu Jia shot a 31-minute documentary titled “Prisoners in the Freedom City,” dedicated to his warders, who were compelled to spend their life controlling him. The movie is a reminder of the universal paradox of all dictatorships: the symbiotic and identifying relationship between prisoner and guard. It also features in George Orwell’s “1984” or in the German movie “The Lives of Others.” Yet compared to his dissident peers, Ai has managed to carve out a set of advantages that seem to prevent him from being locked up indefinitely.
He is a pop culture icon and openly capitalist in a politically socialist country. He is aligned with Western interests and morals. In his concept of total art, where life itself turns into a performance, the contrast between “system” and “individual freedom” is always present. In Klayman’s documentary, one scene chronicles how Chinese authorities commission a new studio for Ai, and the artist builds up a structure that almost resembles a gothic castle (complete with a little courtyard) in a sort-of architectural game that seems to drive individualism to its logical extreme. He does not even have time to settle in, for the Party soon orders the structure’s destruction. But rather than protest, Ai celebrates the authorities’ decision with a lavish seafood dinner. The goal is to demonstrate the absurdity that the Chinese political machine has achieved, and the sacrifice of the castle was a constituent part of the plot.
Ai cannot leave China. Police authorities suggested that “he does not need his passport.” So the artist finds himself in a limbo between the East and the West. Chinese authorities continue to try and extenuate him through permanent investigations of him and his followers. In an ironic twist, the Communist Party is thus supplying the ammunition for Ai Weiwei’s game. They have not realized that Ai in China is more harmful that Ai exiled in the West.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes