“Teacher Ai”, offers the man approaching the dinner table on a Chengdu street. He stretches out his hand in greeting to a big smiling man, seated, tucking into a steaming bowl of pig foot. “I follow you on Twitter,” the man says before moving almost furtively on into the night, having paid his respects. The Chengdu police appear soon after, worried about the exchange – and the thousands before like it.
Chinese dissident artist and philosopher Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based free speech advocate who uses the Chinese police state as a medium…all the while risking the reverse. My introduction to his work was tonight on PBS’s Frontline:
It goes without saying Weiwei’s thumb in the eye of the Chinese establishment carries enormous personal risk. The police have beaten him and the government has bulldozed his studio complex. But he does not shrink, and inspires with the knowledge that fear of the corrupt institution only grows with inaction. To watch him do his thing (follow him in English on Twitter at @aiwwenglish) is to understand why he can’t eat a bowl of pig’s feet uninterrupted.
In a way, he has it better, or simpler than we do in the west. For him, the opposition is in uniform, easy to spot. For us, it’s far more complex. For example, the PBS video I’ve linked to comes faithfully with a commercial for none other than Goldman Sachs, an investment bank that has done as much for personal freedom for Americans as the Chinese police state has done for the Chinese people. Chew on that for a minute and consider the artistic possibilities inherent in having the outer limits of Weiwei’s personal courage in the face of institutional enormity demonstrated thanks to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”