Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Chummy with China, where cruelty is down to a fine art
Twitter, truth, art, torture, in that order. How weird that Twitter, which in normal Western life (with the possible exception of Obama’s election) seems unremittingly flaccid, has become, in Third World hands, a flaming sword of serious smiting capacity.
Personally, I abstain. I’m a tweet-virgin, excepting a one-time, ill-advised curiosity-driven log-in. That’s all I did, I swear. I never tweeted. But I now have 90-something followers, and counting. Perhaps I should be flattered, yet every new notification fills me with such guilt and panic that I hit delete and return to my knitting. I mean, don’t these people have lives?
Yet in Egypt, Syria and China, weapons-grade social media have proved their mettle, shattering worlds, regimes and, occasionally, people. China may be our new best chum. It may suddenly be producing decent art, instead of last century’s egregious social realism, and smattering our inner-city with chic Sino-galleries like White Rabbit. Newly middle class, it may seem therefore benign, a reasonable spot for Australian PMs to smooch the inscrutables. But China is still a place where disappear is a transitive verb.
This is bad enough when it happens to businessmen, who presumably fail to bribe adequately, or to political dissidents who must, in some corner of their minds, see arrest and torture as an occupational hazard. Even the persecution of the harmless-seeming Falun Gong, devoted as they are to “truthfulness, forbearance and compassion”, is only half surprising. Truth and tyranny were never best pals.
But whole churches full of Christians? Artists? The very people who give the Marxist monster a friendly face? How can that be a good idea, even in strictly self-interest terms?
This stuff happens in Chile, we apply sanctions. In Rwanda or Kosovo, we send in the (admittedly floppy) blue berets. But in China? We have a bit of a snuggle and a comfy TV chat about bilateral trade, like there’s some kind of symmetry here.
In certain lights, the disappearance a month ago of the fine artist Ai Weiwei could seem a compliment, albeit distinctly backhanded. Art craves danger, and it’s a long time since Western art could offend anyone enough for arrest to be on the cards.
Sure, Bill Henson was persecuted, but only for a minute and in a distinctly profile-raising way. Before that it was, uh, Patrick Cook? Ruskin versus Whistler? Manet?
It’s not that our artists haven’t tried to offend. God knows they do their best. We’ve been through used tampons, elephant turds, every imaginable bodily fluid and the Piss Christ fellow whose name I can never remember, but we’re just so pacific. Apart from paying taxes, nothing riles us any more.
China’s art-and-religion department makes us look like wimps. China puts pious 23-year-old women in fear of their lives, or at least their thumbs, just for attending an unapproved church. Oblivious to parallels with the Nazis’ patented program of disappearance and re-education, China disappears the man who was far and away its most compelling ambassador.
The first-ever international survey of Weiwei’s work took place in Campbelltown, of all places. Ai Weiwei had long been interesting, as smaller shows at the Sherman had demonstrated, but the Campbelltown Arts Centre retrospective revealed him as a major creative mind – surreal, witty, wise, complicated and fully engaged in the eternal conversation.
Recalling artists as diverse as Duchamp and Schwitters and Man Ray, the 20-year survey ranged easily across photography, painting and sculpture. In works like the wire-coathanger Hanging Man (Duchamp) (1985) and Safe Sex (1986), comprising raincoat and condom, Ai showed he could toy with art’s conceptual history as easily as an orca with a seal pup and still serve up something at once beautiful and moving. This is rare.
Last October, London’s Tate Modern installed Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, 100 million individually crafted porcelain seeds in a walk-on carpet (subsequently closed to walking for health reasons) across its famous Turbine Hall.
At last, it seemed, East and West were on the same page. None of that patronising “orientalism” stuff from the 19th century, nor the 20th century’s stiff incomprehension. Here was art that spoke our language, even as it told of new and unimagined worlds.
Yet now Ai is incarcerated, accused of “tax crimes” and unheard-from in a month. This perverse tribute to the power of art can only intensify Chinese art’s subversive undercurrents. Persecution tends to be good for art.
But it’s not good for Ai, although his art is not really subversive. Cheeky, certainly, like the 2006 Study of Perspective which gives a finger to the Eiffel Tower. But Ai’s truth-star is generally of an existential, rather than political, nature.
Not that there aren’t political truths to be told. Son of a revered poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled and forced to work as a toilet cleaner for years during the 1950s (before being reinstated and, now, quoted by Premier Wen Jiabao), Weiwei grew up as an outcast.
It could make you a touch critical of government. And critical he was, in tweets, blogs and videos. In 2009, Ai needed emergency brain surgery after being arrested and beaten by police. Now, unconfirmed reports from China say Ai has confessed to tax evasion after several days of torture, and watching the videoed torture of the lawyer and human rights activist Gao Zhicheng, who “disappeared” more than a year ago and for whose release Ai had campaigned.
The report, by Rong Shoujin (alias Xinhua Agency Reporter) says: “The cruelest treatment on Gao Zhicheng by the Beijing Public Security Bureau had been poking of an electric truncheon into his anus, after which the evil police would leave for about half-hour, while he struggled by himself with excretion of bloody fluid, semen, faeces and urine. This was repeated every 30 minutes for one week. In addition, Gao Zhicheng was stripped naked, his whole body covered with honey, with all four limbs tied up, and laid down on a lawn heavily populated with ants. The ants climbed all over his body and chewed up his penis and scrotum.”
That’s video art with a difference. Knocks ours into a cocked hat. These are the people Julia has been shaking hands with. The people our big corporates fall over themselves to do business with. The people to whom we are so desperate to sell steel, so they can turn it into arms and control the world. Good idea, guys.
Ai’s art will live on but, as Salman Rushdie notes, artists are more fragile than their work. Eighty-five thousand people follow Ai Weiwei’s tweets, but the last was on April 3, the day before his arrest. No one expects more any time soon.
An online petition for Ai Weiwei’s release is at Change.org, but is currently down due to a service attack from China.
ILLUSTRATINO: EDD ARAGON