Friday, July 08, 2011

Catch & Release

Wo Ist Ai?
Buttons passed out during Gallery Week in Berlin.

Last week ArtSlant published a discussion between critic Abraham Ritchie and myself on the detention and release of Ai Weiwei and its broader relevance to current events. What sparked the debate were remarks made by Dan Keegan, the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum as to the uselessness of protests and online petitions. This comes at a time when MAM has opened an exhibition of 18th century art and decorative objects from the Forbidden City in direct cooperation with the Chinese government. Thusly it has been foregrounded in the art world’s soul searching on issues of censorship, free speech and the politics of cultural institutions in the 21st Century. Keegan had declined all interviews on the subject but responded to reporters on one occasion when he stated, “We don’t do protests…I would say very emphatically that we should not protest ever.”

Meanwhile, the infamous petition for Ai’s release was started by the Guggenheim and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art staged a 24-hour vigil. On Tuesday, July 12th the Walker Art Center is staging an event inspired by Ai’s 1001 Qing Dynasty chairs calling attention the repression of artistic freedom. And of course representing the other side of the spectrum, the Smithsonian National Portrait gallery has engaged in that very type of repression.

Our initial exchange on
ArtSlant is HERE.

The discussion continues below.

ERIK WENZEL: I think I need to open up a little more about my personal reasons for what I said. Such as I feel totally guilty because I know that my interest will fade, and I will forget all those kept prisoner. It's just not possible to maintain a constant state of outrage. (Which seems like it is, or should be, an Onion headline: "Nation's Liberals, Conservatives, Wary of Maintaining Perpetual State of Righteous Indignation"). Also, I am not saying petitions shouldn't be circulated or vinyl letters shouldn't be affixed to Tate Moderns, it just seemed kind of silly. Every time I thought of signing the petition, I felt stupid. I asked myself, "What? Because he's a famous artist–and one whose work I like–is that why we art world people are now speaking up? Because he's 'one of ours'?" I just felt like a phony, I didn't have a good answer. I think you make really strong points, and that indeed the petition and other art world denouncements played a role. But it was a combined effort. And ultimately one that may well have played into the Chinese Government's hands. I remember thinking it's almost like a reverse-engineered act of benevolence: Release a high profile dissenter, look good and appear to listen to international calls for free speech. To begin: find a high-profile dissenter, detain them and wait for the attention. It's kind of bone-headed, but they seem like they are trying to play both good cop and bad cop and expecting us not to notice.

Obviously they were trying to silence Ai Weiwei a number of ways and finally took a drastic measure that brought a lot of negative attention. But they are still pretending to be good cops and hoping we'll buy it. A classic example of "saving face."

When I was speaking of ineffectiveness, I was particularly thinking of all the small-scale demonstrations I witnessed throughout the invasion of Iraq and during the Bush Administration. It seemed like little to no good was done. The consistent opposition from many different sources had no chilling effect on the administration whatsoever. This carries over into today: both Democrats and Republicans pay lip service to the voice of the people, but they pretty much just do as they please so long as corporate and upper class interests are met.

The internet (as is the case with everything) appears to be the most viable route. But I always wonder what the efficacy is of all the online petitions I sign. Everyday there is a new one for animal welfare, women's issues, disapproval of something political and net neutrality. I just wonder, "What's the point? Does this ever do any good or are we all just signing these things to make ourselves feel better while putting in minimum effort?" At least in the case of Ai Weiwei, a quantifiable outcome was reached.

Photo: Gao Yaun via ArtInfo

ABRAHAM RITCHIE: I think you are right to question the efficacy of online petitions, and you shouldn't feel forced to sign it if your heart isn't in it. To be quite honest, just yesterday I had to unsubscribe myself from's email list because I kept on getting too many notices about new petitions to sign, it's an unending battle. I'm sorry if Trader Joe's throws out its food rather than giving it to homeless and food shelters, but that's just a fact of capitalism, and it's not my fight. This is how we operate in a capitalistic democracy--you gather together a large constituency (a market) to agitate for something better (a new product). There are some of us who will tire of the constant friction once we get the main thing we've wanted and that's not wrong, it just is.

But I really have to doubt that the Ai Weiwei debacle played into the PRC's hands in any way, though. There's a renewed international call for the expansion of human rights in China as we've seen how tenuous they really are there. You know if Big, the tea party activist site from Andrew Breitbart, is bashing China on ethics than something is really noticeably wrong.

The important thing that is usually forgotten soon after someone is released is that human rights are always tenuous there; they just overreached this time by arresting someone who is too famous. Now people are starting to remember that they regularly arrest those who are not protected by their celebrity. I think you are right that by releasing Ai the government expected praise, but really all they got was a begrudging acknowledgment that they had finally done the right thing. Never mind that the PRC claims Ai owes them $1.85 million in "tax."

What the conversation should move to is the new reality is that Ai is "free" but he is really only half-free due to the conditions of his release. And this is a concept and reality that’s hard for the media to interest a broad audience in since on the face of it he is "free." Ai's freedom of speech has been essentially nixed, he's not allowed to talk to media about anything meaningful, he's not allowed to tweet or blog, his public voice has essentially been eliminated and that's a travesty not too many media outlets are picking up on. Additionally, Ai's freedom of travel has been significantly curtailed; he's not allowed to leave the country, which is a heavy burden for an artist of his stature. He cannot even leave Beijing without permission. Ai is now so far in debt to China that his labor essentially belongs to the government. So the terms of his bail seem to limit his art practice in very significant ways, not to mention the ordeal of the arrest itself and the fact that the Big Brother government could send him back there at any time for no real reason at all.

It seems the next question to ask is will and how will Ai's art change after this event? I hope he continues the work he has been doing but it seems the government is set on preventing precisely that. In this way the PRC can censor art before it’s even made by enforcing Ai into a regimen of self-surveillance.


Lucy Sibilla Balzarini said...

I lived in Shanghai, from 1999 till 2002 and worked in the first contemporary art gallery there.
As a visitor, you accept, the heavy control on the internet, for instance.. If you were born there, you might not accept, the strict limitation still enforced, even if it looks all nice and funny there now, if you are an artist, to deny you any form of expression is like gagging you. And you can't breathe.
Too many petitions I know, but maybe it is right that way... you chose one, or more, and we go on keeping awareness alive that is the only way we too have to be really alive, and not to have our brains gagged too.

mkaysen said...

Erik, I think you nailed it: the whole thing smacks of classic misdirection. I too felt the same sense of helpless fraud when asked to sign the petition and thought 'what about the nameless multitude that we don't even know about who are going through this ordeal even now?'..... but Americans and the West in general love a celebrity and maybe that's what bothered me the most. Was I just being caught up in the celebrity of it all? If so, that seemed so ineffectual, almost dirty. So, we are left helpless in the face of the enormity. It's not right or wrong, it's just how it is.


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Anonymous said...

Interesting to know about Ai Weiwei which I never heard before. I bet having too many petitions made it more complicated than before.

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