Monday, April 11, 2011

Living in China's Age of Madness

It is now a week since Ai Weiwei, China’s preeminent avant-garde artist, was detained by security personnel as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong. To say he was arrested is too dignified, he has simply been disappeared. In December Chinese citizen Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize for Peace – but he couldn’t collect the prize, because he is a political prisoner in China. Last month Index on Censorship’s Bindman’s Law and Campaigning Prize was awarded to the Chinese citizen Gao Zhisheng, but the prize was collected by Gao’s wife. He himself is a political prisoner in China. Ai Weiwei is a courageous artist and spokesperson for freedom of speech, a man who has been detained before, who has been terrorized and severely beaten by secret police, but who has refused to do what they want, which is shut up or leave China. Instead he has disappeared into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of China’s apparatus of oppression.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s “Sun Flower Seeds” is currently being exhibited in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London; millions of hand-made porcelain sun flower seeds are scattered over the floor, each one is hand painted. Visitors to the exhibition can walk on the seeds, pick them up by the handfull or bury themselves in the seeds. Although they might all look the same, each seed is unique. This exhibition continues until May. That same month two exhibitions of his work are due to open in Switzerland.

Ai Weiwei: Sun Flower Seeds

Ai Weiwei has become the latest well known victim of a system of repression that has been emboldened by the successful and globally publicized bloody suppresion of Tibetan demands for autonomy. Since the Olympic Games of 2008 the repression has grown worse, and the current wave is probably a nervous backlash against the news of successful Arab revolutions. 1989 is often remembered as the year of successful revolutions in Eastern Europe – but it was also the year of the Tiananmen Massacre, a lesson not lost on the Chinese leadership.

Just days before his disappearance, Ai Weiwei met with German journalist, Henrik Bork. He told Bork: “We Chinese are living in an Age of Darkness. There is an economic boom and the living standards are improving. At the same time China has reached a new deep point, where freedom of speech is concerned, where freedom of artistic expression and freedom of education is concerned. This is a new deep point for our civil society”. He admitted that the security services were placing pressure on him to force him to leave China permanently. Already he has become a non-person in the Internet – a search for “Ai Weiwei” in China results in message “technical error”. Nevertheless, the artist had decided that he will not leave China.

Ai Weiwei told Bork: “The contemporary situation in China is absolutely crazy. If I had to give a name to this epoch, then I would say, we are living in an Age of Madness.” Shortly after speaking these words Ai Weiwei disappeared into the centre of the Chinese darkness. Nothing has been heard from him since.

This month the largest European exhibition ever to be staged in China proudly opened at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. The German exhibition is called “The Art of the Enlightenment”, that great period of European history when freedom of expression was brought to the fore by people like Voltaire. Yet China is waging war on its own intellectuals and artists. The irony could not be more obvious. “The Art of the Enlightenment” only highlights the utter craziness of the Age of Madness.

Ai Weiwei: Sun Flower Seeds

A slightly different version of this article was first published as China's Age of Madness on Technorati.

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