1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei, Toronto version
On Sunday, about 1000 people will gather outside the Chinese Consulate in Toronto in support of Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and master of social resistance who was jailed without cause earlier this month. Called 1001 Chairs, it's based on one his works from Documenta 12 in 2007. It's just one of dozens of such protests that day at Chinese consulates all over the world, initiated by Creative Time, an independent art organization in New York.
Ai's fearless practice has won him a lot of friends internationally, including high level diplomats throughout Europe who have demanded, through official channels, that he be released (foreign ministers for both Germany and France have been leading this charge). A site has been established here as a clearinghouse of information regarding his detention.
So far, the massive outpouring -- from governments, arts institutions like the Tate and the Guggenheim, and millions of fans and admirers -- has fallen on deaf ears. After more than a week of detention, the Chinese government announced this week that Ai was being investigated for "economic crimes;" today, the Guardian reported that Chinese officials had announced Ai had begun confessing to a litany of charges, including bigamy, spreading pornography on the internet, and, weirdly, plagiarism (who know that was a jailable offence?)
If you know Ai's work at all, you know right away how absurd such charges are. Ai, a master provocateur who in recent years has switched to full-blown activism, is being punished for not only being an outspoken critic of the regime, but for putting his money where his mouth is.
While most well-known artists in China have developed an international practice with oblique criticisms of their Communist rulers, burnishing a Western sense that their work is somehow "dangerous," Ai lives his principles in the fullest sense. Among many other actions, he famously challenged the government's figures in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, particularly in its alarmingly conservative count of schoolchildren killed while trapped in substandard school buildings (Ai later learned the government had tried to buy the silence of scores of parents, which he of course broadcast loud and clear).
This is to take nothing away from his work, which can at turns be forthright, provocative, mysterious, full of conceptual rigour and almost never without humour. When I was in China last year, I missed meeting him by just a few days; his return to Beijing, from a show in Germany, was delayed by emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, still festering from a beating by Chinese police the previous month in Sichuan. They drilled a hole in his head to relieve the pressure. He went back to work at his studio in Beijing two weeks later.
Sign the petition demanding his release here.