In a way, the demolition of Ai WeiWei’s Shanghai studio plays out like a PR move - more press for Ai WeiWei, more press for China. No real damage done because hey, we all saw it coming. It’s like a Hollywood relationship in need of a nickname: Weiina? ChinWei?
It’s a bizarre lose/win/lose situation.
Ai WeiWei Standing in the rubble of his studio - via the NY TImes.
Authorities in Shanghai originally invited Ai WeiWei to build a studio in the Jiading District, north of the city center, over 2 years ago. Ai agreed, putting over $1 million in to the project that was to serve as the center for a new arts district. The buildings, designed to serve as an educational center and site for artists in residence, were scheduled to open any day now.
That is, until the government announced the studios would be completely razed back in November. Suddenly, nearly 2 months after the initial annoucement, they made good on their promise - beginning at 6am yesterday and leaving nothing standing by nightfall.
No reason for the demolition has been announced, beyond some vague claims of illegal planning procedures. The action comes as no major surprise to Ai WeiWei, who has been increasingly critical of the Communist government. Recently he released two documentaries as an advocate for controversial legal cases, openly called for Democracy in the region, and has adamently supported Liu Xiaobo.
My challenge to Chinese officials: make a decision. Take him or leave him. If Ai WeiWei is truly a rebel, then why tap him to co-design the Olympic “Bird’s Nest”? If he is a threat, why allow him to continuously ship out art critical of the government?
The answer may be in the old adage “Any press is good press.” By allowing Ai WeiWei’s work to continue where other, less famous figures would be silenced, the Chinese government simultaneously endorses what it claims to despise. And they gain press. For example, Ai WeiWei was the first Chinese artist tapped to create the Tate Museum’s annual installation, which employed 1,600 citizens for 2.5 years - while directly criticizing the government’s censorship of the internet.
In a way, China can’t lose by allowing Ai WeiWei to continue his work. And Ai WeiWei can’t win: continue pushing until he is eventually arrested and loses his freedom. Or leave China and lose touch with what makes his work so passionate.
The press and attention will continue as Ai’s fame grows. We can only hope the result will be a global spotlight on acts of oppression and censorship, such as yesterday’s demolition.