Monday, August 29, 2011

On reading Ai Wei Wei's blog/book

In July, just before we left for our summer vacation, I came across the newly published German translation of the English translation of Ai Wei Wei’s blog, which was deleted from the internet by Chinese authorities in May 2009. 

Because I already knew then that I would be going to see his current exhibit at the Kunsthaus Bregenz I picked it up and took it along. Good I did, we had quite a few rainy and windy days and I was glad to have taken a decent amount of reading.
I have to admit that I was not too happy with the book at first. For one thing I got the impression that this was indeed a good example that a selection of blog entries do not necessarily make a good book, at least in a situation where the original author did not have a chance to go over the selection and be involved in the editing process. And I had the feeling that this publication was pushed a bit hastily, trying to make the most publishing profit of the fact that the author had been arrested, and that had caused considerable international uproar, at least in the art world. The chronology at the end of the book did, however, include a note on the fact that he had been released under severe restrictions and was now awaiting trial.
These points of criticism from my side are certainly valid for the first half of the book (which consists of a mere 478 pages).
I cherish Ai’s art, I think it is some of the most interesting and exciting art that can be seen right now – at least from the famous people in the art circuit. But at first I was slightly disappointed that this book seemed to prove that he is not a literary genius. This may be due to the fragmentation of the entire entries due to the fact that they could not well publish over 2000 blog entries. Or it may be due to the already mentioned lack of editing from the author, or the fact that it was the translation of a translation... Of course, he might not even have meant to publish great literature when writing a blog, or he might not have thought it would ever be published as a book at all.
However, I did revise this critical judgment during the process of reading. After the year 2006 his texts take on a much more critical and outspoken tone. The back-cover-slurp announced “an artist’s self-definition of himself as an artist”, which I think really is a self-definition as a resistance fighter. But Ai Wei Wei has, if I understand correctly, always seen his being an artist as inseperable from being an outspoken fighter  for human rights, justice, etc.. So it may be a bit narrow-minded on my side to keep nagging about these aspects...
Ai Wei Wei repeatedly writes about the situation of human rights China, he continuously denounces wide-spread corruption on all levels of management and administration in his country, he ponders the connections between ethical conscience, awareness of historical relations, respect for individuals, and he repeatedly laments the political situation in occupied Tibet (official lingo in China: ‘liberated’). He is explicitly on the side of the underdogs and people who have been subjects of arbitrary acts of the authorities, he demands official and thorough investigation of the fact that so many children fell vistim to collapsing schools during the earthquake in Sichuan in May of 2008 geführt haben. (His various activities when trying to establish a list of names of the children who died finally led to his famous installation of thousands of backpacks on the front of the Munich Haus der Kunst.)

In Memory of thousands of dead school children
killed in the earthquake May 2008:
thousands of backpacks form
a message.

He does not spare foreign reporting about the situation in his country, and as the Olympic Games in Beijing are coming closer he gets more and more critical about the intrigues and scheming of the Communist Party in Chinas and the IOC’s greed of gain.

As a whole the book is an intriguing report from a strange country and a document of resistance.
For me, who grew up in and lives in a country where free speech is a constitutional right, it is an oppressive thought that somebody would not be allowed to freely voice a few critical remarks about political ongoings in his country, be they harsh or not. It is hard to believe that censorship would go so far as to delete the blog from the inernet, and that the author was assaulted and badly injured when a witness on the way to court. And that he was arrested under mysterious circumstances for rather obscure reasons, or released under severe restrictions, including that he is not allowed to give any free interviews. When seen under all these circumstances it is certainly a MUST that at least parts of the blog were published as a book, even if that is not the ideal medium for the kind of writings published on a blog.
However, I find it even  more disconcerting that the western world, always so outspoken about issues of human rights, as can be seen in this German article on the openings of shows by Ai Wei Wei while he was still under arrest, does not feel capable of taking any real action beyond a few culture officals stating something on the importance of human rights and that they be respected. I was appalled that the German government did not decide to at least interrupt or even close down the German show on – of all things! – "Enlightenment" that had been opened in China just a few days before Ai was arressted. I can’t believe that chancellor Angela Merkel merely requested that Ai Wei Wei receive a fair trial, to me she is thus making herself an accomplice of the Chinese oppressors.
Why on earth have Norwegian goods been under a trade ban from the Chinese side since last year’s announcement of Lu Xiaobo as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize? Why is it not possible that Chinese goods receive a similar treatment from the western side? Fact is, it is only the economic gain that counts. We talk about human rights, but we don’t really mean ‘at all costs’.

Here are photos from Ai Wei Wei's New York photo exhibit.

 Here is a report on the opening of his show in Berlin while he was still under arrest.

Others can be found when you search the internet.

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