Olympic Artist Ai Weiwei the Latest in China’s Long List of Evictees

Artist Ai Weiwei (source: Archinect)

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Chinese architect and artist Ai Weiwei, designer of the famous “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing, and whose current “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition is receiving critical acclaim in the Tate Modern Gallery in London, now faces the demolition of his Shanghai art studio demolished later this month. According to the Chinese government, Ai’s studio was erected illegally and had to be removed by law. But according to the artist, the building project was initiated by a high government official who came to him in 2008, soliciting his help in developing a new cultural district in Shanghai. The current accusation against Ai states that he does not have the proper paperwork for the building project, but two years ago before the project started, Ai was told that the paper works were all in place. The contradiction in the government’s statements arouses Ai’s suspicion that the demolition is a retaliatory act against his political activism in China’s human rights movement, which remains a hot-button issue with the Chinese government.

Before the Flood (Dirs. Yu Yan, Li Yifan)

While Ai’s celebrity status as a globally recognized artist makes his eviction particularly newsworthy, it’s certainly not unique. In the past decade, millions of Chinese were uprooted to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project (as depicted in Yu Yan and Li Yifan’s Before the Flood and Yu’s Before the Flood II) and many thousand Beijing residents who were forced to relocate for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (as depicted in Ou Ning’s Meishi Street). These are but two instances of a nationwide phenomenon of residents having their property taken or destroyed by force. But there’s one distinction to make with Ai Weiwei’s situation. In the case of the uprooted residents, people’s personal rights were made subservient to more prestigious projects that were supposed to benefit the nation at large. Ai’s case is a more conspicuous situation of harassment by the government. As Ai continued to gain fame and support both internationally and domestically, his political affiliations and beliefs have been increasingly monitored and moderated by the state, lest it pose a threat to the state’s control over public security and national stability.

Meishi Street (dir. Ou Ning)

For the time being, no one in China – not even those like Ai whose international stature would seem to glorify their country – has the power to fight against the state. However, the upside of the current situation is that it is easier to report their predicaments to a worldwide audience, through video, internet sites and social networks. Chinese nationals are increasingly getting behind the camera and acquiring proactive roles in using other means of media exposure. Ai Weiwei is almost without peer in this regard, as reported earlier this year in a feature by the New Yorker. Still, Ai is by no means the first to tap into newly accessible media to document his hardships with authorities. In Ou Ning’s Meishi Street is the subject of the documentary, Zhang Jinli, uses the video camera himself to film the demolition of his neighborhood as it was happening around him. By acquiring the means to tell their own stories, people like Zhang are no longer completely disadvantaged but are empowered to take some action on their own behalf, if only to make others aware of their plight. Although Zhang did not receive justice in the end as he would like to have, his case exists for others to learn from and take action in the future. Following this spirit of preserving the facts, the film’s unobtrusive reportage editing approach shows the director’s intention to keep everything as factual as possible, with no deliberate narration or any other kind of interference. Meishi Street stands as both a valuable historical archive as well as a statement of concern for the disempowered, made with the hope that its existence may inspire actions on behalf of social justice.

Isabella Tianzi Cai is a regular contributor to the dGenerate blog. She is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University.

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