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Exclusive: Ai Weiwei breaks his silence
Global Times | August 09, 2011 22:09
By Liang Chen
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Political artist

While the international community has lauded Ai for his art and for pushing the boundaries of free speech in China, many Chinese experts have criticized him for his extreme acts both in art and politics.

The influential conservative television pundit and Internet blogger Sima Nan criticized Ai for insulting the nation. Sima was particularly upset with Ai's controversial photograph showing Ai standing nude with a toy horse covering his private parts with a caption that cryptically read "Mud grass horse party central committee." In Chinese the homonyms for "mud grass horse" would mean something sexual done to another's mother.

"Is that really art? If that's really art, then anyone can become an artist," Sima told the Global Times excitedly.

"As an artist, Ai has crossed the boundary of art and involved himself in the political arena. He claims freedom while he has no idea freedom is accompanied by responsibility. Spreading speeches that instigate the public to challenge the rule of the Communist Party is a violation of Constitutional principles."

Ai was an avid user of social media. Before he was detained Ai had 92,000 followers on Twitter, which is banned in China but can be accessed through overseas backdoor channels for a price. He has tweeted more than 60,000 times – most of which advocate democracy and free speech.

"I don't mean to politicize my artwork. I'm complying with the principles of ethics and aesthetics. Art is connected to politics," Ai told the Global Times.

Ai spent 12 years in New York where he had several exhibitions of his works and met visiting Chinese artists such as film directors Feng Xiaogang and Chen Kaige, and composer Tan Dun.

He also gained fame for having a hand in the design of Beijing's iconic National Stadium known as the Bird's Nest.

Ai also conducted his own, private investigation into the list of schoolchildren killed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. He clashed with local authorities after claiming the number of students killed were high because their schools were poorly constructed. He mounted a shocking and disturbing installation in Europe that comprised of 9,000 brightly colored student backpacks.

His activism hasn't hurt the sale of his art. In February, Ai's piece "Kuihuazi" (Sunflower Seeds) sold for $560,000 at Sotheby's in London after it had been on display at the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London.

"I felt very humbled by the high price, but it's all determined by the market," Ai said with a shrug. "I don't need much money for a luxurious life. My life is simple. What I want is the opportunity for everyone in the country to share in a just society."

Some critics have also condemned Ai for his close connections to what they call "foreign forces who want to descend China into turmoil."

"Foreign countries won't pass up any opportunity to defame the Chinese government and threaten the regime to prevent China from enjoying its hard-earned era of peace and development," Sima Nan said.

"Ai's case has been used by the Westerners," Wu Danhong, an assistant professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times. Wu is another critic who says Ai may be in cahoots with an unseen international conspiracy. "By condemning China's repression of dissidents in the name of democracy, foreign countries that don't want a stronger China intentionally attempt to descend China into turmoil by hyping Ai's case."

Yet Wu also wants to see a more transparent legal system in China that will enhance public trust. "Dealing with legal cases openly and transparently will plug the loopholes that are being used by the ill-intentioned," Wu said.

'No one is above the law'

Contingent on his being allowed to leave China, Ai has accepted a teaching offer at the Berlin University of the Arts.

Even though the terms of his release restrict him to Beijing for a year, Ai said he would never consider permanently leaving the country. "People with black hearts should be exiled, I will never leave," Ai said with a laugh.

Although the outspoken artist is banned from speaking to the Western media, "including through Twitter," for at least one year, he returned to the Internet via a Google+ account last week.

Along with his innocuous inaugural comments on Google+ ("I'm here, greetings," and "Here's proof of life"), he also posted a gallery of black and white photographs from his time in New York as a young artist in the 1980's and early 1990's.

The Google+ community has quickly taken notice. As of the press time, more than 9,000 users have added Ai to their circle of contacts.

"Look, the information explosion, and the development of the Internet, have made the impossible possible. This is the best time for China," Ai said.

Ai said although he has strong political opinions he is not all that sure of himself. "I'm an artist, but I'm more than that. I'm the type of person who can easily feel insecure and fill with worry," said Ai pensively. "I just want to do something to increase our sense of security in China."

Ai agreed to talk to the Global Times even though the paper's editorial was highly critical of the West's politicizing of the case against the rebel artist. It was one of the few papers in China to touch the subject of Ai's detention who said he agrees with the editorial's main premise.

"No one is above the law," said Ai.

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