Ai Weiwei makes tax battle a 'social performance'

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2011 2:51 AM
Ai Weiwei makes tax battle a 'social performance'

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei's latest provocative piece was handed to him by the Chinese government: a $2.4 million tax bill that he says is a trumped-up effort to silence him.

Though jarred after spending nearly three months in police detention this year, he turned the demand into performance art _ posting official documents online, tallying loans from supporters and making a video of himself singing an anti-censorship song.

It opened a window on an opaque system, and showed that many in China share his desire for government accountability. Supporters donated more than $1.3 million (8.5 million yuan) to him in just two weeks, some of it folded into paper airplanes or wrapped around fruit and thrown over his gate.

To Ai, who has created installations around the world but had been able to show little of his work domestically, it is all art _ right down to the scathing commentaries against him in the official Global Times newspaper. State media normally decline to acknowledge his existence.

"This has become a social performance and there are so many people involved. Even the Global Times. They are also playing a role in this," Ai said. "This has generated such energy which has never happened in the history of China. If they want to crush somebody, then normally, for that person, what's left there is just silence."

The thrust of the artist's approach is to give the public what he says the authoritarian government denies them _ transparency.

When Beijing tax officials delivered the massive bill to him on Nov. 1, scanned versions appeared on his Google profile page within hours. Responses from his company's lawyers and tax office receipts are also posted, as is a daily tally of money that supporters have sent. Volunteers even post pictures of the cash donations that land in his yard.

"What (the authorities) are afraid of the most is transparency and openness and it's the most powerful tool, so we have to do everything in front of the people, so we put our information on the Internet so everybody can see it," he said.

A New York-based art critic with expertise on China says Ai's social media-driven political action of recent years is viewed by many in the West as art.

In 2008, Ai recruited volunteers on Twitter to compile the names of thousands of students who died in poorly built schools that toppled during a massive earthquake in Sichuan. He later made an installation piece out of 9,000 children's backpacks that covered the facade of a German museum and that formed the Chinese characters for: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

"A lot of the work that Ai Weiwei's done with Twitter and his blog and all of that stuff that might look like just political protest in China, many curators in the West have called it social sculpture," said Barbara Pollack, author of "The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China." "It's very much about using your interaction with people to make an artistic statement."

Perhaps emboldened by the support, Ai has been creeping back into the public eye after keeping a low profile following his June release from detention. At first he gave only interviews to print media. Then he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

On Wednesday, he spoke to TV reporters on camera while wearing a T-shirt with his picture in a missing person poster _ an unmistakable reference to his detention _ and said a $1.3 million guarantee he had just paid to the tax bureau felt like ransom money.

He has referred to the money he has received as loans, not donations, and said his supporters were casting votes with their cash.

By Monday, 30,000 loans amounting to $1.4 million had been sent, including a symbolic 100 euro ($137) donation from the German government's human rights commissioner.

Fang Zhixiong, a 39-year-old repairman in the southern city of Shenzhen, said he was one of Ai's "early debtors," sending him more than 100 yuan ($15) and urging his friends to do the same.

"I really admire people like Ai who are fighting in their personal capacity to win rights or to seek freedom," Fang said by phone. "If they didn't do this type of work, they could be leading better lives, but they do this because of an ideal and the price they pay is very great."

Though the number of donors is small compared to China's population of more than 1.3 billion, it "is still extremely large when you consider the political terror," said Mo Zhixu, a liberal-minded author.

Ai was the most high-profile target of a sweeping crackdown on activists that started in February in a bid to prevent protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa. Dozens of bloggers, writers, rights lawyers and other activists were detained, arrested or questioned. Many have been released but continue to face restrictions on whom they can see and talk to.

To thank his supporters, Ai made a video of himself singing along to a song composed by Chinese Web users about a fictional animal known as a "grass mud horse" _ so-named because the Chinese characters are homonyms for a graphic slur. It gained popularity as a sly insult to China's Internet censors.

The Global Times newspaper has said Ai's supporters do not represent the larger Chinese population, and that dissidents like him would be rendered obsolete by the tide of Chinese progress.

Ai's actions expose a divide between China and the West in how the audiences see political action and art, Pollack said.

"In the West, it's viewed as first of all heroic but second of all as an extremely good use of performance art or social sculpture art, bringing it onto a whole new level. But when I'm in China and I talk to people, it's often seen as egotistical and drawing attention to himself," she said. "I think Ai Weiwei is extremely conscious of playing to both audiences."

The donation campaign marks a turning point for Ai, who had been concerned about a lack of support in his own country, Pollack said. She noted that while Ai was in custody none of the country's leading artists spoke up for him.

"He was very despondent about that when I saw him in September, and now receiving this money means that he has won an audience in China," she said.

Ai and his company's lawyers have 60 days to challenge the tax bill. He said they plan to demand evidence from the authorities and to be allowed to see the firm's accountant and manager, who have been uncontactable.

But the possibility of being taken away by police again is always on the artist's mind.

"I worry about my child, my mother and people around me, people who care," he said. "But at the same time, if I don't make this an argument, the kind of terrible things, the dangerous conditions will remain there and can happen to anybody. I cannot bear this kind of responsibility."


Gillian Wong can be reached at