Chinese artist Ai Weiwei makes Internet his medium

BEIJING (Reuters) - Ai Weiwei’s tweets gather steam early in the day, building throughout the morning into a crescendo of aphorisms, outrage and profanity.

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei speaks during an interview at his studio in Beijing March 1, 2010. REUTERS/Grace Liang

His salvos are the loudest, most flagrantly defiant forms of speech in China today, where government controls on the Internet and traditional media constrain a civil society that nevertheless enjoys freedoms and activities unthinkable a generation ago.

Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous contemporary artist. His career spans protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s and a hand in designing the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

On Friday, the Tate Modern in London announced Ai would be the first Asia-Pacific artist to mount a solo exhibition at its Turbine Hall.

But increasingly, Ai’s canvas is the Internet, where the battlelines of free expression in today’s China are drawn by bloggers and censors, netizens and patrollers paid to ferret out sensitive commentary.

“This society lacks a person who is willing to express himself, who has the opportunity to do so, and the ability,” Ai said in an interview at his workspace, Fake, a brick compound with a bamboo garden in one of Beijing’s gallery districts.

“When I found out the Internet had appeared, I felt it represented a new possibility, a new possibility for everyone. I mean, it was an era unlike any other era.”

Twitter is blocked in China, but enough people are able to get around the firewall that Ai can tap into an online ‘avant garde’ to share his message of individualism and perpetual testing of China’s limits.

Ai, 53 this year, has become an increasingly vocal critic of China’s Internet controls, helping to plan an Internet boycott on the day China was to require use of the controversial Green Dam filter, a program the government wanted installed on every new computer.

That boycott turned into a party in Beijing’s art district after regulators seemed to back down from the filter requirement.

Ai has never been arrested. He gets away with being outspoken because of the prestige of his father, poet Ai Qing, because he picks his battles carefully and because his own art has brought wealth and fame overseas.


“Ai is a highly accomplished artist and a cultural celebrity. He has an extremely well-known poet father and has social status and connection that are far above average Chinese citizens,” said Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, which translates and documents the Chinese Internet.

“So he enjoys quite unique prestige which gives him a capacity to say and do things others cannot.”

Ai most notably harnessed the Internet in a project to list the names of the children buried in Sichuan’s devastating earthquake on May 12, 2008, which killed 80,000.

In town after town, schools collapsed while other buildings remained standing, raising suspicions that shoddy construction enabled by corruption had contributed to the death toll.

The list of children’s names compiled by Ai’s volunteers and released as a DVD takes 1 hour and 26 minutes to scroll across a screen. The list ultimately forced the government to release its own count, but not before shutting Ai’s blog on the topic.

“I realised ... we could do this on the Internet so that the state has no choice but to shut it down. Then a lot of young people who pay no attention to politics will realise, oh, this does have something to do with us,” Ai said, explaining how the names project had come about.

“In the past they thought it had nothing to do with them, they only cared about going out shopping. When they see this is restricted, they realise free expression and space for free expression matters for everyone.”

Two Sichuan activists who mounted separate investigations into the school collapses have been jailed. At one trial, Ai and his volunteers were roughed up and prevented from leaving their hotel -- an incident also thoroughly documented online.

“I am looked at differently at home versus overseas. At home, we don’t have this type of objective debate on art, no deep debate because we are a society without free speech, so we are limited,” Ai said.

“Overseas, there isn’t enough understanding of China, so there are also limits. I am awkwardly between both sides.”

The burly, bearded Ai will be in the international spotlight again at the 11th annual instalment of the Unilever series at the Tate Modern.

His working concept is to fill the giant Turbine Hall with millions of very small things -- a project that has a certain resonance with activism via Twitter.

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan