Great Escapes

03.26.14

Will Ai Weiwei Get His Passport to Freedom?

The artist Ai Weiwei is demanding his passport back from Chinese authorities. Other artists are joining in his call—but the government is showing no signs of softening its hardline stance toward the artist.

In April of 2011, 57-year-old Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained by government officials while boarding a routine flight to Hong Kong. Citing tax evasion, authorities took the artist into captivity where he was tortured and questioned almost exclusively about his politics. Three years later, after no formal charges, the artist is publicly speaking out in an attempt to regain complete freedom.

On Monday, Ai took to his blog to request the return of his passport once more. In the video, the artist states that there “is no clear reason why they obtained my passport and there have been many, many times they’ve promised to return [it] to me, but have failed.”

At the moment, the artist has scheduled talks at an art school in Germany, needs to oversee an installation at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco and is almost a week away from the opening of his largest solo show, Evidence, which opens in Berlin on April 3—exactly three years after he was detained.

Designed specifically for Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, Evidence is already billed as a highly political exhibition showcasing some never before seen works. In the past, Ai has crafted pieces inspired by his imprisonment and government surveillance, but it is unclear as to whether or not these works will be part of the exhibition. 

Video screenshot

As China’s most infamous artist, Ai is internationally known for his social and politically charged contemporary works. Working across all media, the artist has created sculptures, film, photography, and designed architecture such as the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. However, the politics of Ai’s work are what propel him to make headlines and garnered him recognition as ArtReview’s most powerful artist in the world.

The magazine stated: “Ai’s power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates that affect every nation on the planet: freedom of expression, nationalism, economic power, the Internet, the rights of the human being.”

In months prior to his 2011 arrest, the artist had used social media to promote a greater democracy and express his views against the Chinese government’s abuse of power and the major crackdown of free expression that had silently swept the communist country. Writers, lawyers, and activists were being quietly detained and occasionally disappearing, but Ai Weiwei was their biggest catch.

“Some undercover police tore our shirts and tried to grab our cameras. There were maybe 10 of them. They pushed and kicked us.”

Soon after Ai was detained police seized his studio, taking eight assistants into custody as well as his wife, searching his nearby home and forcibly detaining Ai’s close friend Wen Tao, who was a former reporter. The detainment was thoroughly planned. After all, it wasn’t his first brush with aggressive authorities.

In 2010, a year before his arrest, Ai and his assistant were assaulted by undercover authorities while filing an official complaint of a previous attack. When officers in Chengdu refused to take the complaint, they referred him to a station in Jinniu. Upon arrival, Ai and his assistant were greeted by some very unfriendly cops. “Some undercover police tore our shirts and tried to grab our cameras. There were maybe 10 of them. They pushed and kicked us,” Ai told The Guardian. “Now we are being attacked because we complained about last time.”

After his arrest in 2011, the artist remained in solitary captivity for 81 days, but was never formally charged. His passport was confiscated and Ai was immediately put under 24-hour surveillance.

Three years and many requests later, the artist is still confined to his home country—an issue that has prevented him from numerous professional engagements.

“No charges have ever been brought against him,” Berlin-based lawyer Peter Raue told Deutsche Welle. “There are no concrete accusations that he did not pay his taxes. He’s allowed to work in China and send his work abroad, but not allowed to exhibit in China. So there is no real reason for withholding his passport.”

In 2010 Ai, who is constantly monitored, modeled Marble Surveillance Cameras after the ones that were installed outside of his properties.  Then, in 2013, Ai used precious jade to replicate the handcuffs that confined him to his chair during his 2011 imprisonment.

In the video, Ai’s biggest question is why? Why was his passport confiscated? Why has it not been returned?

“I asked them several times about … my passport [and] if they don’t give it to me can they give me a clear reason why … I never get a clear answer.”

Earlier this month, Ai supporters in Germany began urging Berlin officials to also take action—specifically Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, when he arrives in Berlin this week. “We expect our government not to tip-toe around this,” Academy of Arts Berlin president, Klaus Staeck, stated in a press conference, “but rather to raise the issue in a concrete manner.”

Fellow artists have also begun speaking out. L.A. based street artist Shepard Fairey, who designed Obama’s iconic HOPE poster, revealed a similar work of the dissident artist. Comprised of bright yellow and red hues, the image of Ai with a furrowed brow was created in collaboration with Friends of Ai Weiwei, a group that solely dedicated to creating awareness around Ai’s restrictions.

“This poster is a tribute to Ai Weiwei’s art, his courage to be outspoken, and in support of his ongoing political struggle with the Chinese government,” Fairey said about the work. “I hope the image will help raise awareness and advance dialogue that might lead to permission for Ai Weiwei to travel freely and continue to express himself.”

It is uncertain if the Chinese government will respond to Ai’s request, or if German officials will bring up the subject at this week’s meeting. One thing is for sure—Ai Weiwei will never be sorry.