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Thursday, December 11, 2014

#Ai Can’t Be Here: Can Social Media Set Ai Weiwei Free?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 at 11:30 AM

  • Nathaniel Y. Downes
Ai Weiwei, renowned Chinese artist and political activist, sits at the crux of a troubling — if compelling — trifecta of socio-political zeitgeists. The first two are perhaps part and parcel of the archetypal artist narrative—the danger of denouncing The Man and the dubious morality of the art world. The third is poised to be the unlikely hero in Ai’s struggle for freedom, physically and metaphysically: social media.

If you're unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, he's been lauded as one of the most controversial, prominent and important artists of his generation, Ai’s work is historically, and inexorably bound to political ideals, his 81-day incarceration and current inability to leave his own country or mount his own work. His passport was taken by the government in April 2011 — without explanation or legalities — which to this day, prevents him from leaving his own country. He current exhibit, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, boasts seven, large-scale site-specific installations painstakingly curated by For-Site Foundation founder Cheryl Haines — and somewhat surreptitiously shipped over here from China (more on that in a minute) — is the perfect manifestation of everything that often plagues the modern art scene.

Dave Young Kim, a MFA-graduate from Mills College, muralist and longtime Oakland activist, helped to get Ai’s show off the ground, volunteering alongside a trove of other dedicated artists, movers and shakers, all keen to help foster the launch of Ai Weiwei's work on Alcatraz. Not only is the content of his work an act of public dissent, but the very mounting of the show here on Alcatraz was subjected and forced to circumvent to the government’s control.

“He’s sneaking his art over,” explains Kim. “I wasn’t part of that aspect, but he sent people from China on his behalf. They had to break things up and disguise them in ways that didn’t look like what they were. Like the faces of dissidents. They’d separate them into enough pieces that separately they don’t make sense. When the team would build something and have it completed, they’d send him pictures to Ai Weiwei. It was all trial and error and incredibly time consuming.”

Kim believes Ai Weiwei is worth hoop-jumping the powers of bureaucracy; he serves as a potent symbol of possibility, of hope, of one man’s ability to actualize systemic change.

“He’s talking about real, relevant things, not just ideas—he wants to elicit real change.” says Kim. He adds:

“In a sense he’s very practical. Each of Ai Weiwei’s pieces are very specific to a certain event in his life. Each piece exemplifies something that’s happening. For example, he was invited by the city of Shanghai to build a work studio space and then subsequently they wanted to destroy it. So he threw a party to celebrate it before it went away... it was this feast of crabs. So one of his pieces is this pile of crabs. Or the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—which killed more than 69,000 people because of shabby building techniques—because of the government cutting corners. He took it upon himself to do research and gather as many real names and numbers of those that had died until the Chinese government was forced to release the actual numbers.”

But Kim became increasingly restless as he realized people weren’t talking about Ai Weiwei’s absence, just his art. He began passing out — and posting everywhere, both off and online — stickers emblazoned with #AiCan’tBeHere. Kim’s guerilla campaign was so successful in fact that the city of San Francisco sent For-Site a cease and desist letter asking them to stop sullying the streets with their marketing efforts.

“But it was me giving out stacks of stickers,” grins Kim.

Meanwhile, over in the social stratosphere, Zhao, (a Singaporian artist who prefers to remain a bit anonymous) was fostering a virtual relationship with Ai over Twitter. Interestingly enough Ai Weiwei has historically used this medium since his blog was shut down in 2009; at one point it’s rumored he spent nearly eight hours a day corresponding via the powder blue bird, but tapered off about a year ago.

“We communicated quite a bit for years — mostly jokes, food, art and family stuff — and then he invited me to his studio in Beijing. But I didn't want to bring gifts. I wanted to bring him an idea. ‘Aicantbehere’ happened on my way to visit him.”

What began as an idea has grown into a quiet, steady movement, urging the global community to remember that Ai is still not free. The Twitter handle currently boasts just 92 followers, but hundreds of people — from grandmothers to anarchists — are slowly pouring in their support, scrawling on their hands, crafting t-shirts, jackets, artwork, and submitting photographs of their own passports demanding to know where Ai is. Curator Cheryl Haines spray-painted the words on her gold jacket for @Large's opening night.

Over on Instagram, Aicantbehere has gained even further traction; currently 796 people follow the stream and the page is a kaleidoscopic explosion of protest art, reappropriated kitsch, Ai’s lion-hearted face, and some good old-fashioned middle fingers.

Despite Aicantbehere’s slow societal burn, Zhao remains unflaggingly optimistic; the point is never stop talking about it. Currently, Aicantbehere is the only active campaign lobbying for the return of Ai’s passport. Zhao says:

“I believe it can actualize change, if it's loud and clear enough. We're not quite there yet, but with your help, and with more people like you helping, upload photos, writing and talking and asking questions, we can let the world, and not just China, know that this cannot be swept under the carpet. We have to keep talking about it.  In Beijing, Ai places fresh flowers in his bicycle's basket, everyday outside his studio till he gets his passport back. Outside China, we upload our photos, everyday, from all over the world, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, with #aicantbehere hashtag to remind all of us, that his plight is not forgotten.  Ai Weiwei spoke for many when he, to most people, didn't have to. He was already a world famous artist, building the Bird's Nest Stadium, setting high auction prices. But he did. Again and again. Putting his life in danger. Very, very few would. The world loses an important voice with him stuck where he is right now.”

Currently, there are about 1,000 photos of #aicantbehere on the various social networks.

Kim echoes Zhao’s belief that there is a sacrificial element to Ai’s work and a stark reminder that what happened to him can happen to anyone, everyone, if we remain apathetic and silent. If we can’t storm the gates of the Chinese embassy or forge Ai a new passport, we sure as hell can tweet about it.

“There’s something about someone who lives a life that reflects his work,” says Kim. “He’s under surveillance, he’s still being punished for what he believes and what he talks about. But he doesn’t stop. He’s undaunted. #AiCantBeHere is in its infantile stages, but every image you take and tag is a voice. The more it hits the masses the better. It’s about the human condition. Freedom of expression is a basic human right.”
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Katie Tandy

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