For decades, Ai Weiwei has been taking on the Chinese state with the apparent protection afforded by his stature in the global art world. Yesterday, he was detained by authorities at the Beijing airport as he was leaving for Hong Kong, and he hasn’t been heard from in over a day.
According to his Twitter feed (English), police visited his studio last week to carry out ambiguous inspections; yesterday, they arrived with a search warrant, detained and questioned a number of his large staff of Chinese and foreign assistants, and shut off internet access in the neighborhood. A number of computers and hard drives were seized, and with them, likely a mountain of the video footage and other material that Ai has used to document both his epic artworks (most recently: 1 million hand-painted sunflower seeds in the Tate’s turbine hall) and his Kafka-esque experiences lobbying the government for justice (see his documentary about a few days in Chengdu, when he got punched by the cops and spent four hours filling out complaint forms at the police station).
Since calls for a Middle East-style ‘Jasmine Revolution’ emerged on a US-based website last month, Chinese authorities have been rounding up scores of dissidents and human rights lawyers. With roots in the firmament of Chinese society and abroad, Ai – arguably the most important living Chinese artist – is the highest profile target of the government’s detentions so far. At some point, nothing can protect you from the Communist Party, especially when you have 70,000 Twitter followers and dissent is in the air.
“We don’t know where he is,” an assistant of Ai’s told Reuters. “We hope that he can be released as soon as possible.”
Below, see an 18 minute teaser of Alison Klayman’s documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” as featured last week on PBS’s Frontline: