Ai Weiwei: the person people will need to remember “when they have forgotten”

Iconophilia is pleased to welcome Thomas Berghuis to its pages, where he reflects on conversations he held with Ai Weiwei in 2008, and the difficulties in keeping his disappearance in mind.

The following thoughts have come to mind over the past four weeks, as the news surrounding the arrest of Ai Weiwei continues to mount, so long as there is no clear information of his whereabouts, nor that of others, including some of his close friends and staff. The underlying issues are indeed complex and certainly deserve further attention. At the same time our attention needs to focus on remembering when people go missing. Let it not be our thoughts that are forgotten. It would be too easy to forget, or worse still, to ignore.

The initial reports on the arrest of Ai Weiwei, such as in the New York Times on April 3rd, raised the concerns of human rights advocates with the “ominous sign” of an increase in detentions and that a “crackdown on rights lawyers, bloggers and dissidents is spreading to the upper reaches of Chinese society.”

Four days later a Letter to the Guardian contained a petition urging the UK government to respond to the arrest. This was sent by email on 7 April, and published and signed by many people on the next day. The petition mentions the release of another great artist, and a great mind, Wu Yuren, on the very day that Ai Weiwei was arrested, and disappeared. It was thanks to the organisers of the petition that the news of Wu Yuren’s incarceration (and release) was published in the Guardian.

Think about it, before forgetting. People get arrested in China, and they do disappear. The first part may be considered familiar, even expected perhaps, especially for those who like their authorities to rule. Yes, it is also true people get arrested in Britain, and have to wait for their charges to be expedited. But do these people just disappear?

Thanks to those who now use social media as a way to publicly empower the world, the news of Ai Weiwei’s detention arrived within an instant. The Twitter pages of Ai Weiwei immediately provided useful information on his arrest, the police raid on the studio in Caocangdi; the raids on his assistant(s); even the phone number of the Beijing Capital. It immediately sparked some of the campaigns and petitions to call for Ai Weiwei’s release. The Free Ai Weiwei website, listing an account of events, also contains a link to the April 8 ‘Notice to the Police’, drafted by Lu Qing, Ai Weiwei’s wife.

Some of the comments made on Facebook were focused on Ai Weiwei’s status as an artist; as one who constantly looks for, and who receives “so much media attention” or as one who needs to be judged on the basis of being a “good artist” or a “outspoken dissenter”. I was therefore somewhat surprised that even after a month of more serious reporting, the Arts Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Alastair Smart, chose to comment on whether Ai Weiwei’s art is “any good.

Rather than being concerned with whether his art is good or bad, or with Ai Weiwei’s position and status as an artist, or as a dissident, it has to be noted that his work has rightfully been associated with the media, which makes him “a medium”, as someone who holds the means of communication.

And that leads to the crux of some of the larger issues at stake, not only in China, but whether people have the right to speak, or to employ social media as a forum for social criticism – or does there have to be a long rein held over the power to communicate?


The TED film (republished on April 4th) seemingly seeks to focus attention on the idealised position of a great mind and a great speaker as a courageous person who can inspire, fascinate, and who “believes in the power of ideas.” Even when his thoughts are addressed solely in the English language, such thoughts can be construed as seditious by the Chinese authorities, despite the introduction to the video which states that “we understand the Chinese authorities’ concern at anything which might provoke social unrest.”

Those who have access to the Chinese language know how it holds the brilliant capacity to speak with both wit and with wisdom. The satirical style of writing is frequently mentioned in relation to one of modern China’s great writers, Lu Xun – a legacy that continues until the present day. Moreover, for the past 20-30 years Chinese contemporary artists (and writers) have been lauded for their wit, cynicism and ridicule of the “China image”, and their iconic smiles and laughter still captivates many audiences, Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

Yet, there has been a much more sinister side to some of the glitziness that surrounds Chinese contemporary art. This includes artists getting arrested, works and exhibitions being banned from display, and national (and international) media being used to ridicule some developments in Chinese art as wrongfully ‘using “the name of art” (yi “yishu” de mingyi). I experienced this more sinister side when conducting my research on performance art in China, including on the development of what became known as the ‘violent trend’ in Chinese art during the years between 1998 and 2003, which I described as ‘flesh art’ in my study of Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006) – a study that is made available on Google Books.

This troubling side to Chinese art could also be seen in what has been said to have been the last interview with Ai Weiwei before his arrest, produced for the Dan Rather Reports. In this interview Ai Weiwei speaks about his fear of being arrested. However, rather than following the popular image of the “artist-dissident” the interview may actually provide a look at some of the broader issues that concern Ai Weiwei and others in China – which I often see can best be captured by the notion of “being human, all too human” in China, to use a phrase by Nietzsche – whose work has been influential in China.

As time passes, such commentary on the “artist” and the “dissident” start to wear a bit thin, and perhaps need to be sieved a bit, or at least reflected upon. The past four weeks have certainly shown some of the critical analyses disintegrate, fall to bits, fall to pieces. Meanwhile, The Times’ video critique of a Bob Dylan take on Ai Weiwei showed a wonderful sense of wit, but after having watched the human side, it becomes increasingly like a real tragedy.

The point of all this media attention is not only to elicit responses from people. It is important to generate further awareness, and a consciousness is what is needed about the broader issues at stake. Focus and refocus is needed. The Guardian has been very good at including in their reports the names of others who have disappeared together with Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, the stakes remain high.

There have been a lot of commentaries on Ai Weiwei, speculating on why he was arrested. These include inventive commentaries and testimonies that are worth noting in an online forum, but also those that need to be carefully scrutinized for failing to give proper notice to such modus operandi as adopting official government statements or just operating on the basis of recounting other previous reportage.

Besides such commentaries, there is also the tendency to write on the basis of leads that are based on a mishmash of views, opinions, comments, recollections, recalls, and sheer refutations, without giving them proper thought and analysis. Not to mention the need to reflect on the underlying issue of how much of Ai Weiwei’s story is as much prized and claimed by some as much as it becomes recognised by others – such that news value does not always have to be linked to the value of the artist or his work.

Furthermore, it’s arguable that such reports directly related to the arrest do not always need all the references to museums, exhibitions, artworks, and high-profile people – even when they allow for greater search value on Google, and provide new attention to the triumph of the important public value of contemporary art. The last count of people signing the petition at, asking for the release of Ai Weiwei, was 136,653. That is a significant number, which will hopefully generate further incentives towards developing new platforms for raising more critical awareness to the important role of “creativity and independent thought”.

In 2010, the lit.COLOGNE Festival in Germany focused attention on politics, power, and freedom of speech – and took up the case of the Chinese writer and Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. The festival also invited the participation of Ai Weiwei for a public conversation with the Nobel Prize laureate and author Hertha Mueller – a discussion on “art and politics” that has also been linked on the lit.COLOGNE website.

As time goes on, such new platforms will also need to be developed in order to generate new public awareness and common sense about the social dimensions of the arts, and culture more generally that goes beyond the level of artistic production and (infinite) cycles of cultural reproduction. Besides the renewed attention given to important aesthetic debates – including those that focus attention on important links between art, politics and life – one can also think of examining the abiding role of the artist as agent in generating new critical awareness to important cultural and societal transformations. Besides looking specifically at the role of performance art, social installations, or examining the work of artist collectives and artist-run-initiatives, my own experience working with contemporary artists has also drawn attention to a renewed interest in the ethical dimension of the public value and evaluation of contemporary art and culture.


Questions of value, time, and critical consciousness also underpin a conversation I recorded with Ai Weiwei in 2008, seven years after I first met him, together with the late gallery owner and one of the most inspiring people in the Chinese art world, Hans van Dijk, at the China Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing.

Following an earlier  interview with Ai Weiwei in Beijing in 2007, the subsequent  interview in 2008 drew initial inspiration from what was the first major review exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work at the Campbelltown Art Centre, in Western Sydney. Curated by Charles Merewether, the exhibition Under Construction was held five months before the Beijing Olympics and six months after Documenta 12, and hence raised some immediate questions of the popular image versus the underlying consciousness.

Prior to our conversation, Ai Weiwei had already been interviewed by over two dozen reporters and journalists in Sydney – all of whom were keen to focus on the story of the “Chinese dissident, who is able to stay in China.” It should not come as a surprise that there was some anxiety at the start of our conversation. I vividly recall when Ai Weiwei took several sugar cachets, opened them, and poured them out in front of his camera: so as to “make snow, in Sydney”.

Making snow in Sydney was clearly meant to outwit what felt to Ai Weiwei like the need to face the challenge of boredom and repetition, which came from being asked to do one interview after another. Fortunately it also allowed a discussion about the long-term role, value and position of a contemporary artist. Reflecting on a public talk just beforehand prompted the conversation to focus on the question of whether an artist can generate a social consciousness.

A short version of the “Conversation with Ai Weiwei” and the subsequent essay “Ai Weiwei: China’s Social Consciousness” were published in C-Arts, Journal of Contemporary Arts, Vol. 04 (2008). C-Arts has been very helpful in approving access to .pdf copies of the conversation and the essay .

In particular, given the present circumstances, my thoughts again reverted to the interview. When asked how he would like to be remembered, Ai Weiwei enigmatically responded that he would rather be “forgotten,” or at least to be the person “that people remember when they have forgotten something.”

On May 16, six weeks after the arrest and the “disappearance”, his wife Lu Qing was finally contacted by authorities and granted permission to briefly see and talk to Ai Weiwei.  A report in the Guardian makes references to Lu Qing stating how the conversation took place at an unfamiliar location, with people “who did not show their identification”. The conversation, at least brought some positive news about Ai Weiwei’s “good physical health” but also raises concerns about Ai Weiwei being not only described as “tense”, but “mentally conflicted”. There is also still no clear news on the reason for his arrest.

Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting on an earlier report in The Guardian on the release of the lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. There is a statement to the effect that besides no-one having heard of the whereabouts of Ai Weiwei, the following report should also be accounted for, namely: “His friend Wen Tao, 38, driver and cousin Zhang Jinsong, also known as Xiao Pang, 43, accountant Hu Mingfen, 55, and colleague Liu Zhenggang, 49, also remain missing.”

There are further reports on blocked editorials and missing web-links, including the editorial commemorating the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.  The DGenerateFilms website contains a link to the 2010 sound-work “Missing” (nian) with thousands of volunteers reading out the names of victims of the earthquake, next to other videos released by Ai Weiwei and his studio.

That there are many who remain “missing” is a matter that raises concerns, and such concerns need to be raised time and time again in order to become noticed as a serious matter. It is too easy simply to forget, and it is not yet the time to have forgotten those who are not to be remembered.


In order to draw attention to such ethical dimensions, other aspects will first need to be properly analysed, particularly those that relate to precursory values, as well as those that deal with memory, as well as giving attention to remembering values that some may have forgotten once existed.

As media outlets and those who are invited to write for them consider taking the story of Ai Weiwei’s arrest as an opportunity to share their own stories – including the story of a media-world in transition from print to digital – this can indeed raise awareness of how stories are formed. Yet, questions need to be raised on how individual stories and reports can become part of bigger stories, particularly those that are capable of transcending those narratives that seem to operate simply on giving comments or sharing an idea, thought, or opinion.

Comments on reports in the Economist clearly raise the need for some real critical understanding of what has become of ‘a digital rallying cry’, especially when at the bottom one finds comments on “So many lies about Ai Weiwei” and a link to a patriotic website that could have easily been missed, or those that can be viewed with some reflection on how it can lead to understanding some of the deeper issues.

It may therefore also be necessary, at some point to leave some of this pile of general reports, comments, reflections, appearances and personal opinions, to make way for actual, real-time, face-to-face conversation, in order to draw attention to what comes from the senses and the sensibilities of direct public responses. There was a time when artists not only drew attention to the sensations of, but clearly also to their concerns with feelings of a ‘post-sense sensibility’ as it emerges in a society that draws solely on the image of a booming economy.  For further reference one can view the video of the influential 1999 exhibition ‘Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion’ on Vimeo, and is discussed in my study of Performance Art in China.

There is the need not only for more action, but also for critical dialogue. This should be based on in-depth reports and timely analyses that draw attention to the broader social and historical issues and generate an understanding of how the past operates into the present and the future, if not drawing some lessons from it. Geremie Barmé’s ‘View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit’ draws out inspiration in this regard.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know not just what other artists believe in, but also what they would stand for. A report in ArtAsia Pacific called “Beijing Before the Olympics” refers to how “several prominent artists” withdrew from an exhibition in Paris after deciding to join a popular campaign to boycott French businesses following an incident during the Olympic torch relay. Again, Barmé’s thoughts on “Torching the Relay” should draw further interest to such issues.


Thomas Berghuis

Dr Thomas J. Berghuis is a Lecturer in Asian Art with the University of Sydney, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Asian Art & Archaeology and a Member of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, convening a research group on Cultural Policy and Heritage. From March to June 2011 Berghuis has been working as a Visiting Fellow in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of Performance Art in China (Hong Kong, Timezone 8, 2006).

Readers may follow the course of published references to the fate of Ai Weiwei on iconophilia here.


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