After four years without a passport, the dissident artist can now travel and has arrived in Germany. DW looks at what political restriction means for the artist and why his ties to Berlin are so strong.
Ai Weiwei landed in Munich on Thursday (30.07.2015), on his way to Berlin.
After spending over four years confined to his homeland by the Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei showed off his new passport last week and announced that his first trip would be to Germany. Two days later, he already had a four-year multiple entry visa and a work permit for the country – which he also posted on Instagram.
In comparison, the UK decided to restrict his visa to a three-week trip, claiming he should have declared his controversial criminal conviction in his application. Following his detention in 2011, he was fined $2.4 million based on tax evasion claims – yet these charges are widely seen as punishment for criticizing the Communist government.
Berlin loves Ai Weiwei
As the director of a movie called “Berlin, I Love You,” Ai Weiwei certainly has strong ties with the German capital. The short film depicts his long-distance relationship with his six-year-old son, Ai Lao, who has already been living there with his mother for the last 11 months. The artist shot it last February during the 2015 Berlinale film festival – directing it from Beijing via Skype.
The year before, he organized his largest one-man exhibition in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Some of the installations were specially designed for the museum, although he could not set foot in it himself. Still, Ai Weiwei has such a strong sense of architecture that he provided “a perfect plan,” the curator of the exhibition Gereon Sievernich told DW. “I was thrilled by our collaboration.”
Ai Weiwei even holds an official position in the city. The Universität der Künste, the Berlin University of Arts, announced his appointment as a visiting professor just a couple of weeks after he was arrested on April 3, 2011. The professorship was already being discussed with the artist since December, but his detention accelerated the public announcement of the decision. At that point, Ai Weiwei was still held in a secret prison in China and spent 81 days in custody.
Support for his case was widespread in Germany. Gallery owner Alexander Ochs and a group of Berlin friends initiated an appeal at the time: “Freedom for Ai Weiwei,” signed by thousands of people in the country, was later followed by a second initiative, “Passport for Ai Weiwei.”
Beijing solo show a reason for optimism
After spending years fighting for Ai Weiwei’s case, Ochs, who has known the artist for 20 years and whose gallery was the first to show his works in Berlin, wasn’t completely surprised when the dissident artist finally received his passport. “I figured the passport would be coming soon,” he told DW.
Ochs felt change was in the air when Ai Weiwei was allowed to exhibit his work in China in June, but added, “I was nevertheless surprised that it happened so quickly.”
The co-curator of his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, Adrian Locke, was also optimistic his case would ease up. Yet he says the authorities’ presence was still palpable during the team’s visits with the artist in Beijing to prepare the exhibition just a few months earlier.
“I was conscious of it,” he said, mentioning for example that Ai was still required to regularly present himself at the police station, “as a routine issue.”
Ai received an early ‘re-education’
Ai Weiwei experienced the bitter effects of totalitarian culture practically from the beginning of his life. His father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, once close to Chairman Mao, fell out of his favor in 1958. The Ai family was sent to a labor camp and spent time living ina pit dug in the ground. Ai Weiwei was only one year old at the time. He grew up witnessing the humiliation suffered by his father, who was forced to clean the toilets of their village as a “re-education” measure.
The political climate cooled down with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the Ai family was allowed to return to Beijing.
Ai Weiwei then enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy at the age of 21. He lost interest in his studies and founded a radical artists’ group called Stars and participated in putting up posters critical of the regime on what became known as the “Democracy Wall.”
However, the young artist realized it was better for him to leave the country when the new Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to crack down on the Democracy Wall movement, arresting its most prominent critic, Wei Jingsheng, in 1979.
From street portraitist to Biennale artist
Ai Weiwei landed in New York in 1981, where he enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Yet he preferred the burgeoning cultural life on the streets and in the galleries of the East Village to his art history classes. He quit school.
He befriended Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and discovered the works of an artist who would deeply influence him: Marcel Duchamp. “After Duchamp, I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and an attitude than producing some product,” Ai once wrote.
In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to his family in China. His artistic output became more provocative and his international career got a boost through Uli Sigg, an avid collector of Chinese art and Swiss ambassador to Beijing at the time. Sigg hooked Ai up with the great curators of the art world. He was invited to the Biennale in Venice in 1999 and co-organized a show in China called “Fuck Off” to protest against the Shanghai Biennale in 2000: It was shut down by the police before its official end.
Turning around digital transparency
Even though Ai is not a trained architect, after designing his studio complex in Beijing, he ended up leading one of the most important architecture agencies in China, with his company FAKE Design. He was also hired as a design consultant on the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – but then became critical of the Games.
As an artist, he further pushed the boundaries of what can be considered art. When he was invited to the documenta in 2007, the German art show held every five years in Kassel, he paid homage to the home city of the Brothers Grimm with an ambitious project called “Fairytale.” For his installation, he flew in 1,001 ordinary people from China. They lived in a dorm during the event and were asked to report on their impressions as tourists in Kassel.
Until 2005, he had barely used a computer. However, he turned into an avid social media user, proactively putting his own life under “surveillance” – or at least making it transparent. He would comment on the Chinese authorities through his blogs, which were repeatedly closed down.
In 2008, he challenged the government by launching a thorough investigation on the casualties of a deadly earthquake in Sichuan. His stubborn confrontations on this issue are believed to have exacerbated his problems with the authorities: He was arrested and beaten by the police in 2009.
And now, he has a passport
Now that the long wait for a travel document is over, how will these years of repression influence the provocative artist? “Obviously, everything has an influence on the art of an artist,” said gallery owner Alexander Ochs.
Royal Academy curator Adrian Locke, who admires Ai Weiwei’s “eye-opening engagement,” believes he’ll keep tackling the history and politics of China. “He’s assumed his responsibility as a defender of human rights and I don’t think that’s about to change,” he told DW.
On the other hand, “His situation is very complicated, as these last four years and four months demonstrate,” said Ochs. “We’ll have to let him decide what he should be doing next.”
It’s also hard to predict whether Ai will be free to do what he wants in his homeland. The Chinese authorities remain unpredictable. As Ai once told the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent Evan Osnos, dealing with them feels like “playing chess with a person from outer space.”
Despite the developments in Ai Weiwei’s case, Chinese leaders are not growing more tolerant of regime critics. As Amnesty International reminds, Ai Weiwei’s highly publicized passport could eclipse the dramatic clampdown on civil society currently underway in China. Since July 10, 240 human rights lawyers had been arrested and some of them are still missing.