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No Party for Ai Weiwei

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New Emissary

No Party for Ai Weiwei

A hazardous show and house arrest. Provocative but popular Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has had a very bad month.

Last month I mentioned that a new work on display at the Tate Modern gallery in London by the provocative but internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was stirring up some problems. To the dismay of many visitors, Ai’s exhibit, featuring 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, was partly closed to the public after it was discovered that dust being released from the interactive display could, according to the Tate, ‘be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.’

But earlier this month, Ai was in the news again after being put under two-day house arrest in his native country to prevent him from attending a ‘political’ party at his Shanghai studio. In response, the 53-year-old artist, known for being outspoken on political and social issues, condemned his country’s leadership, telling the international press ‘This society is not efficient, it's inhuman in many ways politically.’

Interestingly enough, despite Ai cancelling his party via Twitter (he has over 55,000 followers on his Chinese version account) it still went ahead, starting at noon on November 7 with a few hundred guests showing up. The media presence was minimal, according to Art Radar Asia, which covered the event, but it still included big names like Reuters and the South China Morning Post.

Also according to Art Radar 10,000 local river crabs, a local delicacy, were served at the get-together as a jab at the Communist Party because the word for river crab in Chinese, hexie, sounds like ‘harmony’ and is ‘the ideological buzzword of the current regime.’ The art paper also reported, ‘As the crabs were served, people started to chant repeatedly, “For a harmonised society eat river crabs…” whilst smiling and laughing, considering it a personal yet political joke.’

While such accounts put a light-hearted spin on the political message behind the gathering, it’s still a worry that an increasing number of dissidents and academics are being targeted by authorities in China.

I asked my colleague, China Power blogger and Diplomat Editor Jason about this latest situation with Weiwei, and he told me: ‘The timing of the decision to detain him seems a little unfortunate because it’s so soon after all the criticism China received over its response to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to one of its dissidents. This sort of move does nothing for China’s standing abroad because it just plays into the negative narrative on China at the moment.’

Meanwhile, on a related topic, Ai’s $1.2m studio in Shanghai—where the party was held—is scheduled to be torn down. Ai claims that the very government who encouraged him to build it in the first place back in 2008 (to enrich the cultural element of the area in which it’s located), is now ordering its demolition.

He suspects that the building’s presence is an embarrassment for the leadership.