Staying in touch with Ai Weiwei

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

To the annoyance of the government in Beijing, one of China’s best known political dissidents Ai Weiwei (艾未未) must seem to be everywhere at times. For examples; Ai Weiwei has a new blog, Ai Weiwei does a Gangnam Style parody video, Ai Weiwei has an awarding winning documentary made about his life, Ai Weiwei exhibits naked photos of himself and his friends, Ai Weiwei has retrospectives and new works shown in some of the world’s leading art galleries, and Ai Weiwei chats frequently on Twitter.

As long as the rebellious artist can – with the help of a legion of supporters and fans – remain connected to his online community (he is not allowed to leave China and it is a given that his every move is monitored), everyone with an interest in China can feel less pessimistic about the trajectory the country is taking in terms of tolerating political dissent and political activism.

But when Ai Weiwei is sued, threatened, beaten and imprisoned, we feel gloomy about direction the country is headed despite the Chinese internet growing into a whirlwind of pressure for dialogue, openness and transparency.

While there are other well-known Chinese political dissidents and prisoners such as the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) who is currently jailed and the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) who is currently in the United States, Ai Weiwei is the one many of us China watchers pin our hopes to because he is the most visible to us. His art gives us a non sanctioned interpretation of modern China and most of us have seen or heard about his work in some form or another, like the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing or the porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. We can also follow his conversations on Twitter, even if they are blocked within China except to those who circumvent the Great Firewall by using VPNs and other censorship defying techniques.

After nearly three months imprisonment and a temporary ban imposed on Ai Weiwei by the government ended last year, the artist has again taken to this digital lifeline that assures us he is alive and well and continuing to live up to a society’s expectations of an artist to be a public conscience that speaks out, even if it angers the authorities.

On Twitter, Ai Weiwei (170,000 plus followers and over 80,000 tweets)  is especially visible to me because I follow him on Twitter. He’s on my China list and he has even sent me a tweet. It was no small thrill to a star-struck fan that Ai Weiwei replied to me even if all he said was ‘eh’ or something close to that.

In Chinese, what he said is wonderfully ambiguous. The Chinese character for ‘eh’ is a kind of a grunt used to show surprise or disapproval. Or it could be used to express agreement or assent in the way an English speaker might say uh-huh.

My Chinese is basic and I had tweeted him to say that I read his tweets as a way of practising Chinese and that I looked forward to seeing the Never Sorry documentary about him by the film maker, Alison Klayman. I hoped for a reply but I didn’t expect one. But the fact that I got one demonstrated for me how if Ai Weiwei is a cyclist, Twitter is his fluorescent yellow visibility jacket. It reassures us that he has this one freedom despite not being able to travel overseas and of being under constant surveillance.

This is why it is vitally important to follow Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on Twitter. It tells us that Ai Weiwei is continuing to do what Ai Weiwei does – whether the authorities approve or not. You will be joining legions of fans, supporters, activists and even critics who believe information should flow freely on the internet, despite the worst intentions of governments.

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