06:26 AM

WeekendWatcher: An Artist That Challenges The Powerful - Free Ai Weiwei

Can art change society? I don't think so, I know of no examples. But people can change society, and artists can use their art and influence to make a big difference in the world.

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, is one of those people. He has been using his fame as the world's leading contemporary artist, and his art, to challenge the Chinese government and local officials on issues of corruption, injustice, and cover ups.

He is a fearless social critic, expressing himself through paintings, sculpture, architecture, photography, installations, and blogs. His fearlessness fuels his art, allowing him to work in many types of media and produce an amazing variety of works.

His fearlessness is also what has gotten him into trouble with the Chinese authorities time and again.

- It's resulted in his studio being bulldozed by the government, (he declared the ruins his greatest work of art).

-It has resulted in a beating by police that nearly killed him, causing a serious brain injury requiring emergency surgery in Germany.

- House arrest.

- And now, imprisonment.

On April 3, Mr Ai was arrested just before boarding a flight to Hong Kong. Chinese authorities charged him with tax evasion, bigamy and publishing indecent images on the Internet.

From Wikipedia:

Michael Sheridan of The Times suggested that Ai had offered himself to the authorities on a platter with some of his provocative art, particularly photographs of himself nude with only a 'horse' hiding his modesty -- with a caption『草泥马挡中央』. The term possesses of a double meaning in Chinese: one possible interpretation was given by Sheridan as: "F..k your mother, the party central committee".

There has been an international outcry demanding his release by top politicians, artists, and by more than 90,000 petition signers. The US and the European Union have filed official protests with the Chinese government.

Hilary Clinton called for his release and that of others detained in China for "exercising their internationally recognized right to free expression."

Earlier today, about 2,000 people in Hong Kong marched to protest his arrest -- a bold move within a country whose government is notoriously paranoid about any sized organized protest.

Despite the international outcry, things are not looking good for Mr Ai. The author Salmon Rushdie wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times: Dangerous Arts - NYTimes.com

The disappearance is made worse by reports that Mr. Ai has started to "confess." His release is a matter of extreme urgency.

News that he has begun to "confess" is incredibly disturbing to anyone that has followed Mr Ai's work as an activist and his history of stubborn defiance -- best summed up in the images of his raised middle finger... (the best ones are from his hospital bed when he was recovering from his beatings).

I can easily imagine the horrors of being held captive deep within the bowels of the Chinese prison system, with no communication, and with no protection against the harshest of interrogation techniques.

In his Op-Ed Mr Rushdie pointed out that:

The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations...

Outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, creative figures like Mr. Ai and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak truth against the lies of tyrants...

It seems the regime, irritated by the outspokenness of its most celebrated art export, whose renown has protected him up to now, has decided to silence him in the most brutal fashion.

Lee Rosenbaum, a veteran journalist that covers the art world in the Wall Street Journal and other publications, doesn't believe that international pressure will be enough to release Mr Ai.

She points out on her blog: "As with jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government strongly decries foreign intervention on behalf of those who are officially regarded as 'criminals.'"

She has criticized German Museums and the Metropolitan Museum for deliberately toning down potentially politically sensitive exhibitions that might arouse the ire of Chinese authorities.

If curators can't exercise appropriate control over the interpretation of their exhibitions---in catalogues, multimedia and wall text---they should decline to debase their expertise and withdraw from the project.

That's all very well to hold the curators to the same standards as Mr Ai, however, time may be running out for him. What can be done now?

You can "Like" this Facebook page: Free Ai Weiwei. What else?

Join this Twitter ID: @freeweiwei.

You can sign the online petition: Human Rights Petition: Call for the Release of Ai WeiWei | Change.org. But what else?

It is during such times that social media shows itself up to being incredibly weak and useless in the face of evil. All that talk of a Facebook and Twitter "revolution" in the Middle East was misinformed garbage. Without direct action social media is an empty gesture.

Here's a couple of suggestions:

- Launch a grass roots campaign to boycott Wal-Mart, the largest importer of Chinese goods. Money speaks its own language and it's a language the Chinese government understands very well.

- How about banning Internet traffic from China to your web site? It's ridiculously easy to ban all traffic from any country.

How about designating a specific day, say May 1 - as "Free Weiwei Day" and web masters would ban traffic from China for one day, to protest the Chinese government's silencing of Mr Ai?

Yes, innocent Chinese Internet users would "suffer" but it is nothing compared to the suffering of Mr Ai and his family -- and the symbolic value of such an effort could be immense. What do you think?

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

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Please see this excellent Frontline report on Mr Ai, broadcast just a few weeks before his arrest: Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei? - Video | FRONTLINE | PBS

UPDATE: More Thoughts On Ways To Free Ai Weiwei... Boycott Wal-Mart? - SVW