My review of Ai Weiwei’s Blog (MIT Press) for the Brooklyn Rail published in the October, 2011 issue. Here’s the link and a copy of the review:
AI WEIWEI’S BLOG: Writings, Interviews, And Digital Rants, 2006-2009
by Justin Terry
Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009
(MIT Press, 2011)
Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 archives Ai’s adoption of a new medium into his practice and demonstrates how nascent efficiencies in communication enable an artist to broaden his sphere of influence and, thus, create an impact towards social change. The book is composed of 112 entries hosted on the Chinese site Sina from 2007 until it was shut down by the state in 2009. The posts chronicle Ai’s perceptions and reactions to recent events in China as they unfold. His accounts describe a place that wants to be viewed by the West as more West-like, but will not allow its people democracy, basic freedoms of expression, access to knowledge, and lacks means to cope with its own endemic corruption.
The nature of the blogging medium has enabled Ai to extend his influence beyond the parameters of the art world. In 2007, Ai posted a call for volunteers to participate in his conceptual piece “Fairytale,” in which he organized the travel of 1,001 Chinese citizens to Documenta 12, in Kassel, Germany. The immediate response was so great that Ai decided to take down the post after three days for fear of disappointing tens of thousands of people. The Chinese citizens selected for “Fairytale” came from all corners of China and, in most cases, never would have had the opportunity to travel. In addition to teachers and students, many were peasants from farming communities where women lack names and financial resources are nonexistent. Ai states that by getting people to think about leaving their country, the routine of their thought process is disrupted. By going through the process of attaining the proper papers to travel, the physical travel itself, and their encounter with Western culture, they can see their identity as one being attached to a nation, and the systems that nation employs.
The earthquake that shook the Sichuan province in May 2008 provides Ai motivation for moving prose throughout the book. The disaster claimed the lives of more than 5,000 children when their schools’ “tofu-dregs engineering”—a term for buildings built to substandard levels because money allocated towards their construction goes into the pockets of officials—collapsed and buried the children inside. As the Chinese government refused to acknowledge the corruption behind the tragedy or give recognition to the deceased, Ai initiated a “Citizen Investigation” (posted on March 20, 2009) organizing volunteers to reach out to the affected communities, collect the names of the lost children, and publish them. In a post titled “Paranoid Citizen,” he writes, “A society that departs from humanitarian principles, that abandons fundamental human rights and human dignity, can only exist in a reality that rejects facts.”
While conducting his investigation in Sichuan, Ai was awoken one night and severely beaten by police, an event he caught on tape. The beating caused cerebral hemorrhaging that required surgery a month later while he was in Munich installing a show at Haus der Kunst. The show included a piece titled “Remembering” that used 9,000 brightly colored backpacks to write “she lived happily in the world for seven years” across the building’s facade, the quote taken from a mother remembering her daughter lost in the quake.
The publication of this book is requisite, considering Ai’s legacy as an artist and activist. Yet it is equally important to understand the book as partial document of a larger global movement beginning to unfold. With the recent happenings of the Arab Spring, we are starting to see to what effects the internet’s ability to “self-broadcast” can have as tool for organization and resistance. The birth of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter has enabled regions of the world where freedom of expression has been oppressed for decades to avert state controls, communicate, broadcast, and organize in ways that have never existed before. The same basic concerns that upset the balance of power in the Middle East this past year are the ones that drive Ai’s posts and artistic endeavors. They condemn a governmental system that neither holds itself accountable to its own laws or actions, nor allows its citizens the right to “citizenry,” i.e., access to knowledge, self-determination, and social justice. While impossible to predict the lasting effects of Ai’s posts, the merits of his efforts are substantial, so much so that he spent 80 days in detention this past year, an obvious effort by the government to shut him up. During that time his whereabouts were not disclosed. He has since been released under house arrest while being investigated for “economic crimes.” Although ordered not to publish, he released a scathing condemnation of Beijing on August 28, describing it as “a city of violence.” In his final blog post Ai writes:
I believe that no matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy…
Bury those children, give them kidney stones, and act like it’s nothing, exercise violence near and far, but don’t dare to face the facts … and this is how you make it in this world? I really can’t believe it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JUSTIN TERRY is an artist and writer.