BEIJING (Reuters) - Burly, bearded and blunt, Ai Weiwei, whose art spans porcelain sunflower seeds to names of earthquake victims scrolling on a computer screen, has been one of China’s loudest and most colorful challengers of Communist Party controls.
Ai, 54, was detained at Beijing airport in April, until his release on bail on Wednesday. He has kept an uncharacteristic silence since being let out, signal perhaps of the government’s success at getting such a fierce critic to shut up.
“I can’t say anything more, because I’m on bail,” he told reporters who had gathered outside his home.
Ai is one of China’s best-recognized contemporary artists. His career encompasses protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s and a role in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Unlike many of his peers, he has also waded deep into political territory. Never afraid of controversy, he has spoken out on everything from last year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to curbs on the Internet.
In October, Ai captured the imagination of art audiences with his exhibition of about 100 million individually made porcelain sunflower seed replicas at London’s Tate Modern gallery.
That work was seen as Ai’s comment on living in a densely populated country where individualism can be lost, as well as his interpretation of the interconnectedness of millions of people through the internet.
Still, Ai has admitted to not feeling quite at ease either in China or abroad.
“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 told Reuters last year.
“Overseas, there isn’t enough understanding of China, so there are also limits. I am awkwardly between both sides.”
He had got away with being so outspoken partly thanks to the prestige of his father, the prominent poet Ai Qing, and partly because he picked his battles carefully and his art had brought wealth and fame overseas.
Until his detention, Ai’s home-cum-studio on the gritty northeast outskirts of Beijing had been a busy junction for art-lovers, activists and foreign journalists, whom Ai was never afraid to tell about the sensitive subjects closest to his heart.
“This government has refused to listen for over 60 years. It isn’t an overly sensitive government, it’s a government of people who refuse to be rational,” he told Reuters in reaction to Liu’s Nobel prize.
“They always come out with the same line. Today they realize that no one cares about their feelings any more. Society wants to move on, it wants to change. There’s a demand for China to become more democratic, more free in the future.”
Ai is an enthusiastic user of the Internet, which he most notably harnessed in a project to list the names of children buried in a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, that killed more than 80,000 people.
In town after town, schools collapsed while other buildings remained standing, stirring suspicions that shoddy construction allowed 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 it shut down Ai’s blog on the topic.
“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,” he told Reuters.
“I realized ... 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 realize, 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 realize free expression and space for free expression matters for everyone.”
Editing by Robert Birsel