Detained Chinese artist a tireless government critic

By Ben Blanchard and Lucy Hornby

BEIJING (Reuters) – Burly, bearded and blunt, artist Ai Weiwei is one of China’s loudest and most colourful challengers of Communist Party controls, whose art spans porcelain sunflower seeds to names of earthquake victims scrolling on a computer screen.

But his recent detention signals the 53-year-old’s busy career as an artistic and political provocateur may have run into a wall of Party score-settling.

Ai is one of China’s best-recognized contemporary artists. His career encompasses protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s and a role in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Unlike many of his peers, Ai has also waded deep into political territory. Never afraid of controversy, he has spoken out on everything from last year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to curbs on the Internet.

In October Ai captured the imagination of art audiences with his exhibition of about 100 million individually made porcelain sunflower seed replicas at London’s Tate Modern gallery.

That work was seen as Ai’s comment on living in a densely populated country where individualism can be lost, as well as his interpretation of the interconnectedness of millions of people through the internet.

Still, Ai has admitted to not feeling quite at ease either in China or abroad.

“I am looked at differently at home versus overseas. At home, we don’t have this type of objective debate on art, no deep debate because we are a society without free speech, so we are limited,” Ai told Reuters last year.

“Overseas, there isn’t enough understanding of China, so there are also limits. I am awkwardly between both sides.”

He had got away with being so outspoken partly thanks to the prestige of his father, the poet Ai Qing, and partly because he picked his battles carefully and his own art had brought wealth and fame overseas.

That luck has now run out. After several brushes with the law in recent months, police detained Ai on Sunday, though there has been no official word why.

Up to now, Ai’s home-cum-studio on the northeast outskirts of Beijing has been a busy junction for art-lovers, activists and foreign journalists, whom Ai was never afraid to tell about the sensitive subjects closest to his heart.

“This government has refused to listen for over 60 years. It isn’t any overly sensitive government, it’s a government of people who refuse to be rational,” he told Reuters in reaction to Liu’s Nobel prize.

“They always come out with the same line. Today they realize that no one cares about their feelings any more. Society wants to move on, it wants to change. There’s a demand for China to become more democratic, more free in the future.”

Ai is an enthusiastic user of the Internet, which he most notably harnessed in a project to list the names of children buried in a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, that killed more than 80,000 people.

In town after town, schools collapsed while other buildings remained standing, stirring suspicions that shoddy construction allowed by corruption had contributed to the death toll.

The list of children’s names compiled by Ai’s volunteers and released as a DVD takes 1 hour and 26 minutes to scroll across a screen.

The list ultimately forced the government to release its own count, but not before it shut down Ai’s blog on the topic.

“When I found out the Internet had appeared, I felt it represented a new possibility, a new possibility for everyone. I mean, it was an era unlike any other era,” he told Reuters.

“I realized … we could do this on the Internet so that the state has no choice but to shut it down. Then a lot of young people who pay no attention to politics will realize, oh, this does have something to do with us,” Ai said, explaining how the names project had come about.

“In the past they thought it had nothing to do with them, they only cared about going out shopping. When they see this is restricted, they realize free expression and space for free expression matters for everyone.”

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Detained Chinese artist a tireless government critic