Ai Weiwei: latest casualty of China's crackdown on dissent

A Q&A with filmmaker Alison Klayman, who has documented the life and work of Ai Weiwei, one of China's leading avant garde artists who was arrested April 3 and is being detained by Chinese authorities.

Q&A with Alison Klayman, a Beijing-based filmmaker who made a film about the Chinese artist

Filmmaker Alison Klayman and the Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio. Ai was arrested April 3 by Chinese authorities and little information has been released since about his whereabouts or the reason for his detention. Klayman has made a film about Ai titled Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. (Ted Alcorn/Courtesy of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry)

It has been almost two weeks since Chinese authorities arrested Ai Weiwei, one of the country's leading avant garde artists, and still, little is known about why he was arrested. Some Chinese reports say that Ai has been charged with tax evasion , and others say he is being accused of producing "obscene art."

In any case, Ai now joins a growing group of critics of the Communist regime who have landed in Chinese jails in recent months. These arrests have escalated since the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East, and Chinese authorities appear intent on quashing any dissent within China's borders.

Ai is internationally known for his conceptual art and for helping design Beijing's famous Olympic stadium, dubbed the bird's nest. He runs a successful architecture and design studio in Beijing and also had a studio in Shanghai until January, when local authorities completely destroyed it. Even before his arrest, Ai had firsthand experience of how brutal the Chinese regime can be. In 2009, he was beaten up by local police in Chengdu, and his father, the poet Ai Qing, spent much of the 1950s and '60s in domestic political exile.

Alison Klayman is a Beijing-based filmmaker who met Ai a couple of years ago. Realizing he was an artistic force to be reckoned with, she turned her camera on him and started chronicling his life. She left China in December 2010 and has relocated to New York City to complete her film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon, who lived in China for four years following the Tiananmen crackdown and in 2006 interviewed Ai with CBC director Neil Docherty for the series China Rises, recently interviewed Klayman about Ai. 

CBC News: What is your latest news about Ai Weiwei's arrest?

Alison Klayman: In the last few days, two of Ai Weiwei's employees — his driver, Zhang Jingsong, and his accountant, Ms. Hu — also disappeared into police custody. No one from the studio has been able to contact them or discover their whereabouts. It has now been a day since we heard from one of his lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan. We still have not heard anything about Ai Weiwei's detention, which began April 3.

A flyer is seen on an installation by Ai Weiwei titled Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The fllyers were scattered over the work after a Release Ai Weiwei sign was erected on top of the art gallery in support of the detained artist last Friday. ((Alice Dunhill/Reuters))

Ai Weiwei's friend, the journalist Wen Tao, has similarly disappeared into police custody. I posted a two-minute clip from a 90-minute interview I conducted with Wen Tao last year on our film's Vimeo account. Now, it is increasingly important to put a face to the other journalists, activists, lawyers and employees detained by the police. In the weeks prior to his detention, Weiwei's twitter feed focused on these disappearances and detentions. I believe it's important to cast Weiwei's disappearance as, undoubtedly, the most prominent detention but one amongst many that are happening in China.

Computers, hard drives, diaries, archives and other materials were confiscated from his studio on April 3, and the studio experienced intermittent power outages over the following days. Some overseas studio staff were pressured to leave the country. Ai's mother has visited the local police station frequently, petitioning for information about her son.

You have spent a lot of time with Ai Weiwei over the last couple of years, during which time he has been increasingly publicly critical of the Chinese regime. Could you describe the issues about which he has been most vocal?

Ai's denunciation of the Olympic Games and the Olympic stadium as the "false smile" of an authoritarian regime shed light on Weiwei's activism in China, but the issue that he was most vocal about — and where he inserted himself into the Chinese conscience — was his citizen's investigation into the deaths of more than 5,000 schoolchildren in poorly constructed schools during the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. Over his Twitter feed, Ai solicited over 70 volunteers to independently record the names, ages, classrooms and villages of the dead.

He has also persistently documented the detention, disappearance and judicial wrangling surrounding the imprisonment and sentencing of activists. His coverage of activists' trials has been a constant thorn in the government's side.

Why has he become increasingly activist?

I think he hasn't become any more or less vocal in his criticism since 2007. Rather, the political climate in China changed four weeks ago in response to the events and revolutions in the Middle East. With conservatism at home, Weiwei's position as critic and activist became more precarious, although the tone of his tweets, blogs, interviews remained consistent.

His arrest comes at a time when many liberal activists are being detained and jailed. Why is the Communist Party cracking down right now?

Many news outlets have documented China's tightening media environment, and these efforts have ramped up in the past three weeks following events in the Middle East.

Ai says in a clip in your film, "I don't want this generation to fight the same as I did, and I did, because our fathers' generation didn't do a good job." His own father, a famous writer, was arrested and spent years in Maoist-era labour camps. Ai witnessed his suffering. How did this shape his political views?

Ai Weiwei during an interview at his studio in Beijing on March 1, 2010. ((Grace Liang /Reuters))

Ai Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, was sentenced to domestic political exile in Xinjiang in the late 1950s and was still there during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution [of the 1960s], when he was forced to clean public latrines and suffer public ridicule and struggle sessions. To see a man of his father's stature, of really unparalleled respect within intellectual circles, who risked his life to join the Communist Party, lowered to such a position undoubtedly influenced Weiwei.

But, I also think Weiwei was born with a strong-minded, determined personality. He doesn't care what other people think, and many of the people I interviewed for the film also reiterate this point. It's a unique combination of personality, historical circumstance and residual indignation at the treatment of his father and others in his father's position.

What drew you to want to chronicle his story? How do you see him as a significant figure in China today?

After completing my short film about Weiwei's photographs from New York, I realized I was filming one of the most captivating individuals in China. His life and work sat at the confluence of a myriad of historical, cultural and political flash points. His awareness of his unique personal and professional position, and, indeed, his cultivation of a high-profile persona led him to engage in contemporary society in ways that challenged the status quo and certainly anticipated many of the issues that would touch lives in China and around the world.

It's unclear what the charges are against him. Some reports say the charge is tax evasion. Others say the Chinese are accusing him of producing "obscene art." What does this latter refer to?

Supporters of Ai Weiwei hold a party at his art studio to protest the demolition of the place by the government in Shanghai Nov. 7, 2010. ((Carlos Barria/Reuters))

No one has officially announced this charge, and there is nothing to substantiate this report, which I believe refers to a photo circulated online in 2009 (and which appears in the Miami Beach Art Basel catalog from that year). The photo shows him jumping naked while holding a small stuffed animal that had become an online inside joke. Back then, there was quite a bit of news coverage domestically and abroad about the "caonima" or "grass-mud-horse" used online as a homonym for "f*** the motherland." There's no reason to assume that photo caused his arrest, and it actually isn't a work but a digital image taken and posted on his Twitter feed.

His works, of late, have actually been quite tame — chairs and models of security cameras carved in marble, the sunflower seed installation at the Tate [gallery in London]. In fact, some of the most "obscene" images Weiwei has used in his art are probably the Study in Perspective series of photographs currently on exhibition in MoMA [in New York], which depict Weiwei giving the finger to various monuments (the Eiffel Tower, Tian'anmen, the White House). This series was completed in the mid-1990s and has also been in circulation for over 10 years.

Ai is known among the foreign media and in art circles, but how well known and popular is he in China itself? Is there much interest in China in his arrest?

China's domestic news is not reporting on this, and in many cases, any mention of his name is taken down from message boards and chat forums within the "Great Firewall."