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Welcome back, Ai Weiwei
When the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was freed, his story had long been widely known. During the months of his imprisonment supporters around the world protested the Chinese government’s prosecution of the artist. State officials, fellow artists and individual supporters demonstrated in the streets with the cry of “Free Ai Weiwei,” demanding his liberation. But too many questions remain unanswered: Why was the artist imprisoned for so long, and for what crime?
Published on Friday, June 24th, 2011
Ai Weiwei was born August 28, 1957 in Beijing, with art already in his DNA-- his father is the famous poet Ai Qing. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and continued his study at the Personal Design School of New York. In addition to being an accomplished artist, he is also an activist who fights for freedom of expression and human rights in China. He became famous worldwide thanks to his impressive works of protest art. The Republic of China disapproves of his work, but did not take action against him so as not to compromise the national image. The artist's talent is undisputed; in fact, he was invited to collaborate with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron for the construction of the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The stadium’s design is futuristic, a structure that resembles a "bird's nest" and is 250,000 square meters, 220 meters long and 330 wide. According to the project’s designers, the socio-political value of the stadium is that of a kind of modern Trojan horse. The architects stated that the structure was designed as a "public place that brings together thousands of people, and is therefore potentially dangerous for a government determined to exert maximum control in every situation." Ai Weiwei is deeply disappointed that everything is so politicized. The artist was beaten up for trying to testify in favor of his environmentalist friend Tan Zuoren. Ai Weiwei accused the government of using poor quality materials for the construction of the schools in Sichuan that collapsed in the earthquake of 2008, killing 5835 students. In 2009 he created a huge installation on the facade of Haus der Kunst in Monaco, called "Remembering." The installation was composed of 9000 colored backpacks, a macabre symbol that commemorated the children who died in the earthquake. 
Remembering alla Munich House of Art (2009). foto di Joerg Koon
But Weiwei didn’t stop there. One of his most well-known works, the installation "Sunflower Seeds" at the Tate Modern, is composed of one hundred millions porcelain seeds, each hand-painted by Chinese artisans from Jingdezhen city. The work is a statement against the depersonalization of the individual in favor of industrial production. In January 2011, the the artist’s Shanghai office was raided and razed to the ground. In provocative response, Ai Weiwei threw a party, with eight bands and more than 500 people, to celebrate the demolition. This resulted in the artist being placed under house arrest. By this time tension between the artist and the government was high. On April 3 Ai Weiwei was arrested without cause at the Beijing airport, along with his wife Lu Qing and eight employees, who were freed the next day. On April 6, theAi Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads al Somerset House a Londra the authorities issued a statement saying that the artist was being detained for economic crimes. They then changed the charges to bigamy, illegitimate paternity, and online pornography. Nothing more was heard until May 15, when his wife was allowed to see her husband at an undisclosed location. Based on the report from Lu Qing, the artist had not suffered beatings or torture, and he would be guaranteed treatment for his diabetes and hypertension. The visit, however, was under surveillance by authorities, so it was difficult for her to tell if he had been subjected to threats or physical abuse. Many cities joined in the chorus to free Ai Weiwei, including New York. An installation called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Head,” inspired by a clock fountain in Yuanmingyuan and containing twelve three-foot high sculptures, was displayed in front of the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at the presentation of the work, saying that "China attaches no value to liberty, which is wrong: it should encourage people to say what they think, for their own interests and for those of the rest of the world." The same installation was then displayed at the traditional British Museum of Somerset House, which broke their strict ban on displaying contemporary art to show support for Weiwei. At the opening event, the museum director Gwyn Miles said that for now the best help we can give to Ai Weiwei is to show people his wonderful works and demonstrate the power of his insights. The Pulitzer Association also became involved, launching an appeal to collect five million signatures to ask the President of the Italian Republic to intervene in with Beijing Government to negotiate the artist’s freedom. The Tate Modern erected large red letters on its facade reading “Release Ai Weiwei.” The website counted the days the artist was imprisoned and provided information about the artist. His sad story was also mentioned at the 2011 Biennale. The artist Giuseppe Stampone wrote "Bye Bye Ai Weiwei" in lights at the base of the Palladian facade of a former convent in Venice, one of the most famous Venetian palaces and a symbol of sobriety.
L'installazione di Giuseppe Stampone a Venezia. courtasy Giuseppe Stampone
Facing the lagoon and San Marco, the installation transformed the building into a postcard of protest. Stampone wanted to start a discussion about the world’s attempts to protest the artist’s arrest, which he considered too soft and moderate. Though many people were crying for justice, many remained in indifferent silence. According to Stampone, his “bye bye” is a final salute to the artist who he believed would never be freed if no government would challenge the dominance of China, not wanting to jeopardize economic interests by taking sides. The message is fourteen letters: clear, decisive, direct. Joseph also registered a website,, an integral part of the installation. The site represented a continuation of the work, to establish a closer relationship with Ai Weiwei and focus the protest through the internet. Thanks to protesters around the world the artist was released on June 22, healthy but much thinner. The state agency of Xinhuan stated that he was released for good behavior and confession of his crimes. After paying a substantial fine and admitting to the crime of tax evasion and destruction of accounting records, the Ai Weiwei is finally free, but cannot leave his home. "I'm back home and I am free but I cannot speak", was the first statement released by the artist. Without a doubt, the strength of protest against Ai Weiwei’s arrest has loosened China’s restrictions on the artist, but, knowing Ai Weiwei, in the next months we will once again be talking about him.

curated by enrico migliaccio


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