Ai Weiwei and the sharp end of psychogeography

It’s a bit worrying. Ai Weiwei was released – thinner – and, after an initial few statements that he wasn’t allowed to give interviews, has somehow managed to convey to us (“a source close to Ai Weiwei gave an interview”) that he was held in relatively brutal conditions. He seems unable to stop speaking. Indeed, as I previously quoted from the Guardian:

In an interview last year, Ai told the Guardian that he recognised the state might take action against him and said security officials had visited his bank.

But he added: “I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK.”

Breaking the conditions of his bail, Ai Weiwei wrote in Newsweek last week:

I feel sorry to say I have no favorite place in Beijing. I have no intention of going anywhere in the city. The places are so simple. You don’t want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what’s on his mind. No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you.

None of my art represents Beijing. The Bird’s Nest—I never think about it. After the Olympics, the common folks don’t talk about it because the Olympics did not bring joy to the people.

There are positives to Beijing. People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks. Last week I walked in one, and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for? They always tell me, “Weiwei, leave the nation, please.” Or “Live longer and watch them die.” Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity. With no name, just a number. They don’t care where you go, what crime you committed. They see you or they don’t see you, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you’re missing…

The strongest character of those spaces is that they’re completely cut off from your memory or anything you’re familiar with. You’re in total isolation. And you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There’s no way to even question it. You’re not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It’s very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs.

This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions.

I quote this at length, because I think Ai Weiwei has once again got at something. He has been down into the chasm, and has come back up with something for the rest of us. His paragraphs are so vivid that I feel as if I’d been in that park in Beijing. Only I want to say, with Frank O’Hara, “We love you Lana Turner, get up!” “We love you Ai Weiwei, go to Germany!” (Though how can he??)

Ai Weiwei is well acquainted with that place where “night splits and the dawn breaks loose;” where “the great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.” I wrote a while ago about his actual work – you know, that stuff we’ve almost forgotten about with all this other business going on – and what I was trying to do was to draw a line between Ai and other artists (as it happens, largely other artists in a dream country involved with varying stages of communist enterprise) in an attempt to delineate a tiny grammar of what is a giant international language. That as much as he is first and foremost Chinese, and thus a member of the country of China, he is also first and foremost a creator, and an intellectual, and thus a member of another country. The metaphor of the city is that, if a physical city is also a mental one, then there really is a Museum Without Walls, and there is a country whose inhabitants are scattered around the globe in a network of meaning, across even time. It’s a different kind of psychogeography. (Clearly I take his point about China, but we have all been in that park. And Beijing is not the only city with these black holes he talks about.) Weiwei, “through the terrible novelty of light, stalks on;” and if we can’t walk with him we need to try and line his path.

Look at this (via Andrew Sullivan):


Simon R. Gladdish September 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Dear Katy

I like to think if I lived under a brutal dictatorship that I would be as heroic as Ai Weiwei but, in all honesty, I doubt that I would be. Cecil Rhodes said that to be born British was to win the lottery of life. An absurd exaggeration, of course, but not without a grain of truth.

Best wishes from Simon

Simon R. Gladdish September 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

Dear Katy

I’ve just looked up Ai Weiwei on Wikipedia and discovered that he was born a couple of months after me so maybe we have more in common than I thought. We Roosters have a tendency towards political activism. Look at Ken Livingstone, Michael Heseltine and, most famously, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Best wishes from Simon

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