Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is an internationally-renowned artist and a free speech activist who was taken into custody by Chinese police forces at the Beijing airport on April 4, 2011 and has not been heard from since.
In the absence of a formal response from the international community, members of the arts world designed a global political action based on Ai Weiwei’s project Fairytale: 1,001 Qing Dynasty Chairs. Coordinated by the group Creative Time - a non-profit organization that commissions and presents public art projects – and promoted through social media, the organizers asked supporters to bring a chair to their local Chinese consulate or embassy for a peaceful sit-in supporting Ai Weiwei.
There is no Chinese consulate or embassy in Puerto Vallarta, so local activists chose the Malecon. The Vallarta action was co-organized by museum coordinator Pilar Perez, Pulpo Rojo owner Fernando Sanchez, and artist Angel Delgado.
All images © Pulpo Rojo
Perez spoke with PV Pulse about the protest. “The action was in solidarity with Ai Weiwei ,” she said. “The artists here in Puerto Vallarta participate in the global art world and it was important that we too show our support for Ai Weiwei who was imprisoned for speaking out through his art. I felt compelled … to bring attention to his unjust incarceration.”
Perez - who has recently relocated to Vallarta to head up the working committee of the new Museo Centro de Arte Puerto Vallarta - and artist Sanchez have a legitimate interest in the ability of artists to speak freely. But it’s the participation of artist Delgado that underscores the context of Ai Weiwei’s disappearance.
“The action here in Vallarta also spoke about the organizers,” Perez explained. “Especially Angel [Delgado] who was also imprisoned in Cuba for 6 months as a reaction to an art piece he created. And to Fernando [Sanchez] and Pulpo Rojo who are reaching far beyond the parameters of the usual art experience...”
Despite its size in comparison to many of the worldwide arts hubs, Vallarta was successful in mobilizing twenty-six people for the protest, a testament to the city’s connection to art and artists. “We seem to live a more isolated existence here, away from the larger cities and daily newspapers, and big museums, ” Perez commented, “but Vallarta still had a good turn out - the same as Boston and Dublin.”
Ai Weiwei, who is best-known for his collaboration with Swiss architectural company Herzog & de Meuron on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, has long been an outspoken critic of his country’s government. According to an article in the New York Times, shortly after the unveiling of the lauded Beijing stadium, Ai Weiwei “denounced the Olympics as a feel-good whitewash on China’s repressive, market-hungry government.” The Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 took the lives of thousands of children who were crushed in their poorly-constructed schools, and crystallized Ai Weiwei’s position.
Ai Weiwei continued to attack authority through his work which included photography, sculpture, and performance art. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2009, according to the New York Times, Weiwei was beaten by police and had to undergo surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage. Later that year, his blog was shut down, and in 2010 he was put under house arrest while his Shanghai studio was destroyed; city employees claimed it had been built without proper permits.
After Ai Weiwei's apprehension in April 4, the international art community responded immediately. The directors of more than twenty foremost museums – including the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, and Guggenheim – started a petition on human rights site Change.org calling for Ai Weiwei’s release.
On April 18, 2011, the Change.org site was temporarily crippled by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) hack originating in China. The organization immediately issued a request for assistance from the U.S. State Department and the FBI. As of April 20, 2011, the State Department had failed to publicly condemn the attack.
Ai Weiwei is only one of many Chinese artists to face restrictions, harassment, and legal sanctions. According to an article published in the New Yorker, writer Liao Yiwu – who has spent much of his life in and out of police custody – was denied permission attend the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in the United States. Liu Xianbin, a political activist and writer, received a prison sentence last month for “incitement to subversion”. The same charge was levelled against Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is now serving eleven years.
Weeks have gone by without word from Ai Weiwei, although – chillingly – a Hong Kong newspaper reported last week that the artist has “begun to confess”. In the U.S., the State Department has yet to respond. In the U.K., Foreign Secretary William Hague issued only this statement: “I call on the Chinese government to urgently clarify Ai’s situation and wellbeing, and hope he will be released immediately.”
The relationship between art and politics has never been clearer. Take it from another man who paid for free speech with his freedom. “I think as an artist is a shame that in these years [there is still] this kind of repression against the artists,” Delgado told PV Pulse. “It reminds me of my case 21 years ago in Cuba , where I expressed myself freely and was sentenced to 6 months in prison. I fully support the solidarity movement for Ai Weiwei. "
At the time of this writing, the Change.org petition is not accessible by Internet. The URL is http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei.
Video produced by Mara Sánchez-Renero: