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Meet Ai Weiwei, "China's Picasso", Not Seen Since His April 3 Arrest

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The latest news about the Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei -- who was arrested April 3 in a Beijing airport and has not been seen since -- is that the powerful, popular figure had been visited by "very polite" Chinese authorities just days before his detention. The visiting officials invited Weiwei to join a government-run advisory board.

According to the Guardian newspaper:
The South China Morning Post said Ai had told his aides that he had twice been invited to join the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body made up of non-Communist party members, including high-profile figures such as artists and athletes. It was not clear whether they were referring to the national body or one of its subordinate bodies, or how Ai had responded, it added.

An assistant to the artist confirmed to the Guardian that domestic security police had visited the studio at the end of March. Ai subsequently said the officers were very polite and had asked him to join the CPPCC.

The assistant said that the artist was not joking, adding: "I remember when I heard this I was somehow relieved, because I thought that if they were being polite to him and asking him to join the CPPCC, they wouldn't arrest him or do anything bad to him. It seems that I was wrong."

Ai's friend Wen Tao, 38, his cousin and driver Zhang Jinsong, also known as Xiao Pang, and accountant Ms Hu are still missing. Staff and volunteers at the studio have been questioned.

Today, in light of Weiwei's arrest and the ongoing mystery regarding his treatment and whereabouts, the Believer magazine republished online and free of charge a 2007 interview with the artist. The article, like many other profiles of Weiwei, leaves little doubt regarding how he would have responded to the visiting authorities' request. Here's one quote from the piece, in which Weiwei was asked about his 2000 anti-Biennale exhibit, Fuck Off.

"To say 'fuck off ' is an essential attitude for an intellectual artist stating his own individual mind toward any kind of authority, which can be cultural and political. It has been my attitude for as long as I’ve been practicing art and other cultural-related activities." 

Weiwei goes on to explain that it's not necessary to make that statement at every moment.

For Weiwei, the spirit of individualism runs in the family. The artist spent his childhood exiled to hard labor near the Gobi Desert after his father, the poet Ai Qing, was targeted by Mao’s anti-intellectual campaigns.

In The Believer interview, Weiwei spoke to journalist Claudine Ko about that childhood and what he sees in China's new economy. He also described his years in New York in the 1980s, his personal view of the Beijing Bird's Nest (when he collaborated with the stadium's architects, he saw the work as a giant toilet seat, not a nest) and the odds that he'd be arrested in China because of the anti-government statements in his art.

Here are some excerpts:

On China's political-social conditions:

AW: Well, when I first got into the first-year study after the Cultural Revolution, got into the same school with this group, I wasn’t conscious of the so-called “Fifth Generation.” I didn’t like that kind of study condition because there’s no real, true education there. It’s really rubbish that some kind of “technical” learning means you will be a better person because you know this skill better. And there was no discussion on how this society became like this, what happened in the past. People have a tendency to become elite rather than to care about the general conditions of the society, which makes me sick. It’s an unbearable condition.

BLVR: Are you talking about society during the Cultural Revolution? Or postrevolution?

AW: Today, the general masses in this society are in this political-social condition that really encourages people to become rich and become a star and be unique. It gives so much privilege to people who can make it, rather than having some moral and aesthetic discussions. So society becomes very destructive. For those actors and directors who produce films which are always about the old kingdom or about heroes, you know about the fantasies related to the classics, but there is no real discussion about today’s life and no discussion of the real conditions—which is really sickening. They’ve become part of a conspiracy, collaborators of the crime, which is lying to the general public and trying to hide the kind of criminal acts happening in many cases.

BLVR: Have you ever regretted your decision to drop out of film school?

AW: I never regret anything. Because I never think any place is better than others. I think you can give meaning to any condition; you can be poor or unsuccessful or be so-called successful. But I don’t think that it would give an individual human being a better condition.This so-called fame or being better off doesn’t really attract me at all. I often feel more disgust than pride about this kind of success. So there’s no regret whatsoever.

On China's affluence and poverty:

BLVR: You collected a half ton of pearls to fill a giant porcelain bowl for Bowl of Pearls (2006).Tell me about this.

AW: I grew up in a desert, which has no kind of imagination.The fantasy we had with pearls was always so luxurious and unique with a kind of rareness. We grew up in a very material-lacking socialist society, but today China is a capitalist society. It’s very materialistic. It’s full of desire and luxury goods. It’s always the rich and there’s plenty to waste, yet still China has a lot of people living in very spare, poor conditions. So I think the pearls—one is a necklace, and another you have five hundred pounds of pearls, which may be one million pearls in a bowl—really show a kind of condition. A nation like China has become one of the biggest production fields for exporting cheap labor, which also re-questions our history and past, re-questions human desire, and the human illusions of the past.

On China's official museums:

BLVR: I read somewhere that museums in China will rent space to any artist who’ll pay for a show.

AW: I don’t think China has professional museums— not in the past, present, or near future. The museums used to be exhibition halls for government propaganda, and now every city wants to build a museum. A few thousand are to be built in the next few years, all using taxpayer money. But there is no system, no research, no content, no good programs, no good managers. It all belongs to the cultural department, which is the biggest cultural department in the world. They understand nothing but bureaucratic daily affairs. They don’t care about culture. Maybe they’re the furthest from the people who understand culture. Everything is selected by the central government without good judgment or an understanding of culture to make it really safe.They will become nobody to maintain their power and be raised to the next higher level.

BLVR: Which explains the circumstances of the infamous Fuck Off exhibit. You cocurated and held the show in opposition to the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 only to be shut down by officials four days after the simultaneous openings. Did it make you shy away from curating more controversial shows?

AW: When I curated this show, I was by no means trying to shock people or be controversial. Fuck is the reality; to say “fuck off ” is an essential attitude for an intellectual artist stating his own individual mind toward any kind of authority, which can be cultural and political. It has been my attitude for as long as I’ve been practicing art and other cultural-related activities. But, of course, you don’t have to state that in every moment. If there’s the right condition, I always want to express the concept or ideas in a very independent way.

On the likelihood that he'd be arrested:

BLVR: How are you so free with your criticism of the Chinese government? Don’t people tend to end up in prison for that? Or are you safe because of your involvement with high-profile projects?

AW: It’s not like before. It’s very clearly losing power in every aspect, but trying to fix up all the problems or potential problems. The whole attitude of society has become much more open and realistic.They realize that the only way to make a more democratic and free society is to let different opinions come out. The government has improved in the last two or three years. Of course, the structure is still the same; there’s still a one-party system and strong censorship.

Read the full interview, here.
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