Ai Weiwei’s struggle against the Chinese government propels him into the headlines once again.
The artist-provocateur’s appeal against his tax evasion conviction was denied, resulting in the shuttering of his design company while, in a surprising move, he was recently tapped to represent Germany in the 2013 Venice Biennale.
On Thursday 27 September 2012, Beijing’s No. 2 People’s Intermediate Court rejected Ai Weiwei’s appeal against the conviction for tax evasion levied against his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd. With the decision, Ai’s case is no longer open to further deliberation.
Ai claimed that the tax bureau had violated the law while investigating his case, citing illegal treatment of witnesses, gathering of evidence and seizure of company accounts. He was also barred from attending all but the very last appeal hearing.
Ai was detained for 81 days in spring of 2011, officially on suspicion of tax evasion, though it is widely suspected that his arrest was due to his activities as a dissident against the Chinese government, in particular his documentation of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
With the loss of his appeal, Ai was ordered to pay the remainder of his RMB15.2 million (USD2.4 million) fine. In order to appeal his case, he was required to deposit a USD1.3 million guarantee, which was largely funded by donations from approximately 30,000 supporters.
In response, Ai is refusing to pay the remainder of his fine, citing the illegality of the entire case. He even went on to tell The Wall Street Journal that it is likely government officials are “too embarrassed to come and ask for it.” Describing the courtroom scene to the newspaper, Ai said,
I told them the whole thing was a disgrace. No one looked at me. They just bowed their heads. I think they felt helpless. They didn’t want to do it.
Victory in defeat?
Ai’s words in the aftermath of his rejected appeal are now looking prescient. Ai’s friend and lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan posted a note on his blog saying that on Sunday 30 September 2012, Chinese officials notified Ai that they were revoking the license for his art production company, Fake Cultural Development Ltd. Officials cited the company’s failure to re-register this year as the reason behind the closure.
Despite the seemingly negative news, Ai was upbeat about the government’s actions. In The Guardian, the artist was quoted as saying,
I think they want to back down to try and conclude this case. From the beginning they should not have had it; they were using very old tactics to punish someone and make up a crime to make people think ‘He’s a bad guy’ … That didn’t work and it backfired. I think it completely failed.
The Guardian also noted that the company was unable to register largely because the court had confiscated all of its materials and its seal, which is typically needed to conduct legal affairs in China.
With the closure of his art production company, it remains unclear as to whether the government will continue in its pursuit of the outstanding fine. Ai’s lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan stated that revoking Fake’s license may be a face-saving way for officials to close the case without further conflict with the obstinate artist.
However, the South China Morning Post quoted Shenzhen lawyer Gu Ping who stated that mainland China law recognises outstanding debt from companies, saying, “[Anything] unpaid … can be collected from the company’s owners or stock holders, with or without a business licence.”
Despite the possible reprieve from the fine, authorities have yet to return Ai’s passport and still will not allow him to travel outside of Beijing. He also remains under close surveillance.
One thing closing Ai’s production company will not accomplish is to silence the artist, who remained a vocal critic of the Chinese government throughout the course of his trial. After his detention, Ai was released on the condition that he would stay off Twitter and other social media platforms for a minimum of a year. Ai was back on Twitter after only two months.
Most recently, in The Guardian Ai penned a strongly critical review of the Hayward Gallery in London’s recent exhibition “Art of Change: New Directions from China“, seemingly in response to a very positive review printed in the same newspaper just days earlier. Ai accuses the artists in the show of ignoring the realities of contemporary China, posing the provocative question, “How can you have a show of ‘contemporary Chinese art’ that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues?”
Ai then comes to his central thesis, that art and creativity cannot exist in an authoritarian China.
The Chinese art world does not exist. In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretence. It is impossible for a totalitarian society to create anything with passion and imagination.
Ai’s contempt is not limited to the government. In a lengthy interview with the Huffington Post, Ai took aim at fellow big-name contemporary Chinese artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, Xu Bing, Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun and Liu Xiaodong, all of whom have largely forsaken Ai and his confrontational style.
They tolerate every wrong act the government makes. They know in China no museum can be called a museum, but they enjoy that the government will build another 2,000 museums in the next few years, and they will make a lot of money.
Ai related several anecdotes to Huffington Post reporter Gazelle Emami on how former colleagues and friends in the art world now ignore him on account of their career aspirations. In a country where cultural appointments fall under the realm of politics, their logic is understandable.
Yet perhaps the most surprising news to come out in the past month is the announcement that Ai Weiwei will contribute to the German pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Ai will be one of four artists to contribute to the exhibition, none of whom are German.
With the selection, Curator Susanne Gaenscheimer aims to move beyond the unswerving model of national presentations and biennales to find a mode of exhibition more reflective of the multi-cultural and multi-national countries that exist today. Gaenscheimer is quoted as saying,
Both everyday life and the cultural landscape of Germany are determined by different religions, economies, and political approaches. This defines our everyday and leads to mutual enrichment as well as to confrontation.
Ai, before his detention, had announced plans to set up a studio in Berlin. More recently, in mid-2011 Ai told reporters that he had accepted a visiting professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts, though due to his travel restrictions he will not be able to attend.
The Venice Biennale is not Ai Weiwei’s only upcoming high-profile show. The retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. on 7 October 2012, incorporating sculpture, photography, installation, video and audio work as well as new pieces. The exhibition, which débuted in 2009 at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, will travel to five North American cities.
- Ai Weiwei’s archeological Serpentine Pavilion finds success among ruins – June 2012 – Ai teams up with former architectural collaborative for a uniquely conceptual pavilion
- Ai Weiwei wins White Box award for “defending human rights against oppression” – May 2012 – Ai’s humanitarian artwork comes at a high price, as he still cannot leave Beijing
- Political spectre looms over Ai Weiwei Taiwan exhibition – round up – February 2012 – critical response to Ai Weiwei’s de facto retrospective in Taipei
- Will Ai Weiwei rebuild Shanghai studio in Ghent? – November 2011 – Ai looking to set up a studio in Europe
- Ai Weiwei’s anthropomorphic army: 12 Zodiac Heads storm Somerset House London – June 2011 – a seminal work from Ai that comments on East-West interaction tours the world
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