Artist, architect, activist and social critic, Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is listed among the most controversial figures of China. Last April, Weiwei disappeared for 81 days; he was taken away by the police for alleged evasion of taxes. It is known, however, that his stance on political and social issues was the irritant in many throats; the Fascist way out was to muzzle his voice. On April 3, a year after his incarceration, Weiwei in protest launched a website called weiweicam where four web cameras streamed all his activities. He was under continuous and harrowing surveillance via the internet to make his trauma public.
Forty-six hours later, Weiwei, openly critical of the Chinese government's stance on human rights, was forced to abort his own self-surveillance. Since then, weiweicam has remained blank.
In a show of solidarity, a 10-day screening of the artist's videos - 'Chairs for Ai Weiwei' has been organised by Clark House, Mumbai, who last year had hosted an exhibition 'Right to Dissent' in protest of Dr Binayak Sen's persecution. Organisers of this artist-led initiative, interested in raising pertinent questions regarding the relationship between citizens and state, say, "Chairs are arranged for people to watch, and symbolically welcome Ai Weiwei to India." An accompanying exhibition of works by Atul Dodiya, Tushar Joag, Justin Ponmany, Riyas Komu, Simon Liddiment and Nikhil Raunak explores the way in which political histories inform artistic practice.
In a feature on Weiwei, New York Times called him "a figure of Warholian celebrity".
The American daily goes on to say - "He is a leading figure on the international art scene, a regular in museums and biennials, but in China, he is a manifold and controversial presence: artist, architect, curator, social critic, and justice-seeker. He was a consultant on the design of the famous Bird's Nest stadium but called for an Olympic boycott. He received a Chinese Contemporary Art lifetime achievement award in 2008 but was beaten by the police in connection with his citizen investigation of earthquake casualties in 2009. Weiwei's blog documents his passion, his genius, his hubris, his righteous anger and his vision for China."
The artist's personal and family history was one of intense strife. His father, poet Ai Quing was sentenced to a labour camp for several years when Weiwei was just a year old. Moving back to Beijing at 16, Weiwei enrolled in the Film Academy and founded an early avant garde group called the Stars. In years to follow, he lived and studied in New York, creating conceptual art and playing blackjack card games, coming to be regarded as a serious and talented professional gambler.
Back in China in the 90s, Weiwei established an experimental artists' village and published a series of famous books about his generation of artists. His achievements, extremely varied and prolific, are far too many to list, as is his exhaustive exhibition participation at venues such as Venice Biennale and the Guangzhou Triennial.
On his blog that was shut down in 2009, Weiwei posted damning social comments, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture and autobiographical writings. He wrote about the Sichuan earthquake and ensuing mismanagement, reminisced about Andy Warhol and the East Village art scene,
described the irony of being investigated for "fraud" by the Ministry of Public Security.
He wrote, "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one." We in India have come close to experiencing such climates. These videos warrant a trip to Mumbai. Especially for young artists, activists and concerned citizens, who continue to believe in the power of the small but brightly burning voice.
The author is a published writer and an independent arts consultant