When the Chinese government asked international provocateur and visual artist Ai Weiwei to pay 15 million yuan (2.4 million USD) in taxes this week, few needed to guess its meaning. Yet in a surprise to both the local and international press, 20,000 Chinese citizens have raised roughly $840,000 to help pay the fine, in what appears to be an unanticipated show of solidarity.
“Over the past three years, during all the efforts I’ve made, sometimes I felt like I was crying alone in a dark tunnel,” Ai said recently in an interview with the New York Times.
While some may question the impact of his art, one thing is clear: Ai Weiwei is not alone.
One of the most famous contemporary Chinese artists on the international scene, he is no stranger to censorship. In April of 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing’s main airport and detained for just over two months, again on charges on tax evasion. In January 2011, Shanghai officials demolished the artist’s studio, ostensibly on the grounds that it did not meet building safety standards. In 2009, he was beaten in his hotel room by Beijing police following criticism of the government’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake. (He was later treated for a brain hemorrhage doctors linked to the attack.)
Ai’s work is undoubtedly provocative–especially to Chinese government officials. Most recently, he garnered acclaim for an exhibition at the Tate Modern that consists of 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, which he designed to show the uniform nature of the Chinese experience and its simultaneously hidden, but present, individuality. In 2010, he created a display of 9,000 backpacks in memorial of the children who died when their schoolhouses collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And then there’s his self-portrait: a nude photo of himself holding a plastic toy horse over several important body parts, with the caption “Grass mud horse covering the middle,” apparently a Chinese double entendre for, “Fuck your mother, the Central Party Committee.”
Still, the social effectiveness of the artist and his relationship to the public is difficult to track. The messages embedded within Ai’s art can be more subtle, and the reaction to those messages largely depends on the subjective interpretation of the viewer.
And yet, the Chinese government continues to censor his artwork, perhaps the most revealing testament to its potential for social change.
Either way, Ai seems to be, at least for the time being, an international barometer for the climate of freedom within China. The determination of the artist and the 20,000 Chinese citizens who have helped his cause illustrates a reality that is more complicated than the unified facade the government would like to project. The treatment of artists like Ai in any country, including those in the West, is ultimately a demonstration of how much freedom a state is willing to tolerate, and what they hope to gain—or fear to lose—by allowing it.
Samantha Libby is a first-year Master of International Affairs student.