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SF to China: Free Ai Weiwei

Demonstrators at the Chinese consulate in SF called for Ai Weiwei’s release

 Last Sunday, April 17, the Bay Area art community staged a sit-in at the Chinese consulate calling for the immediate release of Ai Weiwei. The celebrity artist/provocateur and irritant to the Chinese government was arrested April 4 while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. His whereabouts and condition remain unknown. The government has since alluded to crimes committed – including tax evasion, possession of pornography and bigamy – but those close to the artist dismiss the charges, saying Ai’s arrest is part of widespread crackdown designed to crush any potential uprising that might be inspired by those now roiling the Middle East.

Cheryl Haines, Ai’s SF dealer, organized the local protest. It was matched by similar demonstrations at Chinese consulates around the world. The one in SF drew a crowd that included, among many others, the artist Enrique Chagoya and the critic and curator of contemporary Chinese art, Jeff Kelley. The group held signs, passed around a platter of sunflower seeds (alluding to Ai’s installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern) and re-enacted, at a vastly smaller scale, Ai’s 2007 installation of 1001 chairs, Fairytale, in Kassel, Germany.  

The call for "1001 Chairs" fell short, but demonstrators, got their point across.
Ai’s arrest, Haines said, had nothing to do with any specific provocation on his part. It was about “the growing anxiety that the Chinese government has had about his about his pro human right statements” which the government sees as attacks on its legitimacy. “The comments they’re making about tax evasion and bigamy and other things are really an obvious effort on the part of the government to turn public opinion against him. 
“The parallels between the Iranian government and the Chinese government,” she continued, “are very clear. It’s part of the larger conversation about a Jasmine Revolution and their increased fear about what’s going on in the Middle East. They’re doing everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen in China.” 
The disappearance of many other dissidents, besides Ai, supports that conclusion. In an April 20 editorial in The Telegraph, (“China Must Set Ai Weiwei Free”) Salman Rushdie cited a long list of writers, lawyers, journalists and activists who have been silenced in recent months. (The following day, The New York Times reported that two of those detained, Jiang Tianyong and Liu Xiaoyuan, both human rights lawyers,  had been released.) Still, few observers see this as encouraging sign for Ai. 
“Ai Weiwei,” the state-run Global Times wrote, “has been close to the red line of Chinese law.  As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.”
L to R: SF’s sunflower seed tribute to Ai; the artist at Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.
China’s most visible international artist, Ai has openly criticized the government.  In 2000 he organized the now-famous Fuck Off show, a counter exhibition to the Shanghai Biennial in which he was pictured standing before the Forbidden City (and other locations including the White House) with his middle finger extended. When the government legislated in 2009 that all new Chinese computers come equipped with filtering software, Ai called for a one-day Internet boycott. When more than 5,000 children died in collapsed schoolhouses in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai’s efforts to lay the blame on the government’s shoddy construction practices earned him a beating from the local cops. From that attack, Ai later suffered a brain hemorrhage that would have killed him had emergency surgery not been performed.
Jeff Kelley, who has written frequently about Ai and who has known him since 1987, said that the attack was the work of a single angry policeman when the police broke down Ai’s hotel door in Chengdu.  The recent arrest, he said, was different. “It was orchestrated at the top. The security people knew exactly what they were doing.  I’m afraid they will try to break him psychologically.” 
Given the situation, it seems unlikely that any amount protest could result in Ai’s release. Says Haines: “We didn’t do this with that in mind; we did this because our friend is hurt and gone and people want to do something to make themselves feel like they’re really trying.”
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Ai Weiwei is a part of Presidio Habitats, the first site-based exhibition created for a national park. The exhibition runs through May 15, 2011 and is organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the Presidio Trust.


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