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Alexandra Perloff-Giles

Alexandra Perloff-Giles

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Students at Harvard Demonstrate Support for Detained Artist Ai Weiwei

Posted: 04/11/11 03:49 PM ET

On April 3rd, Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei was taken into custody at the Beijing airport as part of the government crackdown on political dissidents. Ai, who achieved international renown with the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics, on which he collaborated with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, is a prominent public intellectual in China known for his investigations of government corruption and his human rights activism.

Last Friday, museums around the world demonstrated their support for the artist. In London, the Tate Modern, where Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds opened last October, posted the statement "RELEASE AI WEIWEI" on the corner of the building's northern façade. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim foundation started an online petition, calling on Chinese culture minister Cai Wu to act to "hasten the release of our visionary friend." Art world luminaries like Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, Art Institute of Chicago director Jim Cuno, Asia Society President Vishakha Desai and director Melissa Chiu, and President of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation Yongwoo Lee cosigned the petition, which is in both English and Chinese.

And in Friday's edition of the Guardian, a letter signed by over five hundred artists, curators, gallery directors, academics, and other art professionals urged the government in the United Kingdom to press for Ai's release. Signatories included British art historians Michael Stanley, Griselda Pollock, Guardian art critic Adrian Searle, Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick, Chinese artists Cao Fei, Cai Yuan, and the Gao Brothers, and even Huffington Post arts blogger Rebecca Taylor.

Here at Harvard, Ai Weiwei's detainment was also marked last week. Ai is among three artists invited to create site-specific installations for a new exhibition entitled The Divine Comedy, co-organized by Harvard's Graduate School of Design and the Harvard Art Museums. On Friday, a panel discussion was held with the other two participating artists, Tomás Saraceno and Olafur Eliasson, and exhibition curator/GSD professor Sanford Kwinter. Following the introductory remarks, a woman came forward and added a fourth chair next to Kwinter, calling attention to Ai Weiwei's absence. She then placed a long military green coat lined with red silk, designed by an artist who worked with Ai Weiwei in Beijing, on the empty chair. The audience and panelists applauded the gesture. Partway through the discussion, someone else left his seat in the audience, went to the front of the room, donned the coat, and went to stand in the back of the room. Kwinter paused in deference before picking up where he had left off. A few minutes later, someone else approached the front of the room, placing a second nearly identical coat, this time lined with yellow silk, on the seat, carefully folding the arms in front. While Ai Weiwei was not scheduled to participate in the event, the intervention, conceived by art students from Harvard and MIT, acknowledged Ai's current situation.

In another element of the tactical action, a sheet of paper was also distributed to several audience members as they entered the auditorium. The page contained provocative questions directed at the Chinese detainee, all of which began "Mr. Ai, we did not plan to see you here. But now your absence is impossible to ignore." "Is your disappearing act part of your minimalist aesthetic practice, or is it the result of your 'economic crimes'?" they inquired. "Do you think the Chinese government has more interest in selling your work for profit or obliterating it from the face of the earth?" "Can political aims be achieved through practices that leverage the very conditions that they attempt to critique?" The protesters hoped the questions would be asked during the Q&A period, although time constraints limited the number of questions asked and theirs were not among them.

Ai's installation in the Northwest Laboratory building at Harvard is part of his recent engagement with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the alleged corruption scandal involving the poorly constructed Sichuan schools that collapsed during the seism. A powerful memorial to the schoolchildren who died, Untitled (2011) consists of 5,335 identical school backpacks, representing the exact number of children who were killed. A sound piece entitled Remembrance (2011) recites the names of each victim in a continuous loop. While government-sanctioned media outlets broadcast optimistic coverage of rescue operations, Ai filmed his own footage of the devastation, interviewed parents of dead or missing children, and recorded his impressions on his blog, which has recently been published by MIT Press as a book entitled Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants (2006-2009).

"Feel sad! Suffer!" Ai Weiwei wrote in his blog on May 22, 2008.

"Live frankly and honestly, respect history, and face reality squarely. Beware of those who confuse right and wrong: the hypocritical news media so adept at stirring passions and offering temptations; the politicians parlaying the tragedy of the departed into statecraft and nationalism; the petty businessmen who trade the souls of the dead for the false wine of morality... The true misfortune of the dead lies in the unconsciousness and apathy of the living, in the ignorance of the value of life by those who simply float through it, in our numbness toward the right to survival and expression, in our distortions of justice, equality, and freedom."

Nearly a year later, Ai Weiwei announced the launch of his "citizen's investigation" into the Sichuan earthquake. "They say the death of the students has nothing to do with them... They conceal the facts, and in the name of 'stability' they persecute, threaten, and imprison the parents of these deceased children who are demanding to know the truth," he wrote on March 20, 2009.

"Those children have parents, dreams, and they could smile, they had a name that belonged to them. That name will belong to them three years from now, five years, eighteen or nineteen years later; it is everything about them which may be remembered, it is everything that might be evoked. Reject the failure to remember, reject lies. To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a 'Citizen Investigation.' We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them."

Following Ai Weiwei's outspoken criticism, his blog was taken down, his phone wiretapped, his studio demolished, and his residence monitored by authorities. In August 2009, he was beaten by police in retaliation for trying to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, a writer investigating the details of the Sichuan earthquake.

Ai Weiwei's installation at Harvard will remain on view through May 17th. In conjunction with the exhibition, the metaLAB (at) Harvard has organized a project called "My Time Is Your Surroundings," in which Twitter responses to Ai Weiwei's work or commentary regarding his detainment are projected live next to the installation in Harvard's Northwest Laboratories. Twitter has proved an important medium of resistance to government surveillance for Ai Weiwei, who boasts 70,000 followers and nearly the same number of posts. Add your voice to the discussion by posting here or participate in the "My Time Is Your Surroundings" project by tweeting with the hashtag #mtys.