Not many people have a problem with Singapore being called a soul-less state. There are rigid rules which reflect our core values – some of which are practised, some of which are merely preached. Singapore’s socio-political stability received much praise from both outsiders and insiders (in the form of self-praise). Conflicts here come mostly in the form of the neighbour’s dripping laundry or off-key karaoke singing. Few people confront the authorities over values and principles concerning freedom and rights.
In stable and sensitive Singapore, rocking the boat is an act often frowned upon by the masses. But great works of art need to be able to grab our attention and make us see and think a bit differently from the way we normally do. As such, they can only come out of the hands of rebels, mavericks or even the certifiably insane. Recently, a controversial film with racist remarks was banned in the wake of public outcry over insensitive online racist remarks made by a Chinese woman in high office. Not surprisingly, there was little interest in defending the film.
If you think that China has poor human rights records and there’s even less freedom for artistic expression there, then there is someone you just have to meet.
In China, simply mentioning someone’s name in your blog or website can lead the authorities to shut it down. That name is Ai Weiwei 艾未未 – China’s ultimate rebel.
The son of renowned poet Ai Qing 艾青, Ai Weiwei was born in China in 1957. He lived through the Cultural Revolution when he was a child. His father was one of the liberal intellectuals branded as a counter-revolutionary. His family was exiled in Xinjiang and made to clean toilets. At home, they had to grow their own crops and even make their own bricks. Ai Weiwei was familiar with the whole process of brick-making. This would lead him to create many art works in ceramics.
Ai’s family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1975. He furthered his studies at the Beijing Film Academy. Famous directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou were his contemporaries. In 1981, Ai Weiwei went to the US and told his father that he would stay there permanently. He couldn’t believe the freedom he had to create controversial works of art in America. He took to it like fish to water, earning him many fans and admirers in the West.
During the Tiananmen incident in 1989, Ai Qing visited the protestors on a wheelchair and gave them his moral support. The old poet fell critically ill after the crackdown on the students. Ai Weiwei returned to China and at his deathbed, Ai Qing begged his son to return to China.
Ai Weiwei fulfilled his father’s last wish. Ai worked tirelessly in the field of experimental art in China. Frustrated with censorship, he went underground, publishing books and albums with no names or titles. Just as he exposed police brutality with photography in the US, he used photography to insult the Chinese authorities.
The model in the above picture is another well-known Chinese dissident. She is artist Lu Qing 路青 (who later married Ai Weiwei). The picture was taken to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. It was published in one of Ai’s underground books, printed in Hongkong and then smuggled into China. It’s incredible how Ai got away with all this. Any Singaporean artist who does that would have been severely punished and receive no media coverage for the rest of his life.
It may come as a surprise, but Ai Weiwei was approached by the authorities, not be charged, tried and punished, but to design Beijing’s National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. For his work, he received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award, Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Let’s face it. The Beijing Olympics were big. Any person as level-headed as Jackie Chan would have been sold, but not Ai Weiwei. His anti-establishment behaviour finally got him into serious trouble when he conducted his own investigations into the government’s cover up of the Sichuan earthquake findings. Tens of thousands of people were unaccounted for and no inquiry was made into why the public school buildings collapsed while other private buildings in the area were hardly damaged.
The Chinese government was dealt a most humiliating blow from this piece of art put up at Haus der Kunst in Munich. It was made from children’s school bags “spelling” the words “她在这个世界上开心地生活了七年”. Ai received numerous harassing calls and threats. Instead of giving up, he went further to try to humiliate the government. He put the following picture in his blog with the caption: 草泥马挡中央, presumably intending to say 操你妈党中央. Rebel, maverick or certifiably insane?
Because of his influence, Ai Weiwei was thought to be untouchable. Unnamed officials agreed that they had yet to encounter anyone like him. But he was finally arrested in April 2011 and released 3 months later, apparently after he confessed to crimes which the authorities insisted were common crimes like tax evasion and the distribution of “pornography”. His company, naughtily named Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd 北京发课文化发展有限公司 could not renew its licence. He is now under constant surveillance and must obtain permission before he could travel.
Is this the last we’ll hear from China’s ultimate rebel?
© Chan Joon Yee
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© Chan Joon Yee