I’m late, as usual, to the party that is the Ai Weiwei hooptie-hoopla. Last evening I watched a documentary called “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” Initially it rolled along great, construction-wise, but then, sometime around the 60-minute mark it began to drag.
But more interesting for me than the actual filmmaking is this man, his intentions/actions, and the unbelievable freedom he is allowed to criticize and subvert the communist central committee time and time again. As someone who knows a bit about communist regimes and has lived within the confines of one for a time, something smells here. For example, Weiwei’s colleague, Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo, is currently serving a 9-year sentence in prison for very similar activities and relentless work against the propaganda machine of the CC.
So…what gives? Watching the Weiwei documentary one sees the outright “balsy-ness” of this artist dealing with local and federal authorities…something that is celebrated over and over and seen as a virtue of Weiwei’s especially in the western (free) world…but….but.
There it is, the “but.” Weiwei isn’t doing anything differently than his incarcerated colleague Liu Xiaobo. Which leads me to strongly suspect that Weiwei is in fact allowed by the central committee to be the agitator that he is.
In short, I don’t trust him to not be controlled by the regime. No one confronts the communist Chinese government internally as Weiwei does without “disappearing” immediately. Remember the iconic Tank Man from Tienanmen Square in ’89? Watch the footage just after he halts the column of tanks: a bunch of men come and hustle him away…we like to believe and it’s been speculated that those men were just bystanders looking to protect the Tank Man, but deep down inside, people like me know that more than likely those were plain clothes secret police hustling the man away to either a work camp or a mildewy basement where he would be shot. Note: the Tank Man has never been heard from, since. PBS Frontline has done a brilliant program (“Tank Man”) exploring the possible whereabouts and fate of this man. He has just simply…vanished without a trace. This is basically what always happens to a dissenter in a totalitarian regime.
Has anyone formally accused Weiwei of collaboration with the CC or questioned his relationship and possible cooperation with the government? Dissent on the dissenter, as it would be.
In the world’s eyes he is a hero, a brilliant artist. Personally, I’m not impressed by his installations, but then again that’s art; that’s a subjective realm. I do find it quite interesting that Weiwei no longer even touches his own pieces; he has a group of artists and sculptors and painters who do the work FOR him; much like a microcosm of a communist government, in a way.
In the documentary, an interview with one of these artists reveals that they see themselves as “assassins” with Weiwei being the mastermind, the boss. “When he says we have to kill someone, we don’t ask any questions, we just do it. We’re like his assassins.”
This is somewhat frightening but not surprising to me, this proclamation. It’s so analogous to the modus operandi of the CC and what it does within its bureaucratic government–it adds layers, which it then controls. And more than likely purges, eventually. Sure, there are Weiwei’s periodic incarcerations or home detainment, but I highly suspect that all of them are orchestrated. They are the “slap on the hand” scripted out for the international community to reinforce Weiwei’s credibility as a dissident.
Weiwei, I believe, is the Chinese communist government’s cultural ambassador to the world. Let’s not forget that his famous “giving the finger to various landmarks” photo series also includes giving the finger to the White House…to the Eiffel Tower, and several other western landmark icons. There’s a message from China, wouldn’t you say? Not quite subversive, but hey, so it goes.
It’s not unusual to disseminate propaganda via an admired cultural icon. On the flipside, the most recent example of which I can think was Julia Child’s longtime work for the CIA. Infiltrating a culture via a popular figure IN that culture is the easiest, most elemental way to infuse it with manipulated information. Jay Z’s and Beyonce’s recent “controversial” trip to Cuba also comes to mind. Despite static from a select group of congresspeople (mostly conservatives), the U.S. government was quick to shut all of that down, offering proof that their visit was arranged through official and legal channels. The government shut that down quickly; one can’t say for sure whether these two carried a separate agenda, but one also cannot discount the idea. How many of us laughed when we heard that Julia Child was a CIA spy all along? Nevertheless, her work over the many decades she was known to us as a lovable, liberal, beer-sipping, clumsy cook is well documented. All sides, all governments, work the global system, through all types of resources: political, electronic, some secret, some cultural. This is not paranoia, this is experience.
The central committee of a communist government is not unlike the brain of a corporation…it allows for criticism and even supports it, as long as it comes from an inside source, one which it owns. Think about our news outlets here in America…the “liberal media” as they’re called. They are subsidiaries of, and under the umbrellas of major corporations…by definition conservative entities. That’s the parallel I draw and I believe.
I am not well-versed in Weiwei’s personal history other than knowing about the decade he was allowed by the Chinese government to spend in New York City, taking in the culture and art scene…before he miraculously decided to go back to China to be with his ailing father. (Note: I’m leery of such “cultural exchanges” as historically these “ambassadors” have mostly turned out to be informers or perpetrators of some sort of espionage.) I also know that his father, a famous poet and once-staunch dissenter, eventually was corralled by Chairman Mao’s forces and became a Party member–whether or not against his wishes is actually not important. What’s important is that he was made to follow the Party line and ideology. From my experience with this system, it’s hard to believe his son, Weiwei, has been allowed to stray from the Party philosophy.
Once they own you, they own your entire family…for generations to come; really until the system itself fails or is overthrown. If people ever stray, they disappear down into the salt mines, gulags, work camps, or damp basements where they’re tortured horrifically before finally being put out of their misery with a bullet to the brain. Think: Tank Man. Nothing internal or domestic, criticizing or dissenting from a totalitarian system is not APPROVED by the totalitarian system itself. Anything not cleared, is quickly (and quite literally) killed. History of it is efficiently erased.
Make no mistake, the information allowed to flow OUT of (as well as into) China, is closely monitored, regulated, and manufactured by the central committee.
The virtues of Ai Weiwei as an artist are open for debate, as they should be with all artists…but his activism and dissent…well…those smell of rotten fish to me.