Hello Hello Ai Weiwei

Will the Chinese star's detention force the art world to better confront human rights?

Re-creations of pieces plundered by British and French troops during the Second Opium War, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads reshuffles the spiny issues of looting, repatriation, and jingoism with a healthy dose of moxie: "The rabbit and rat bronzes from the Old Summer Palace are not Chinese culture, and they have no artistic value," Ai said before casting his faux-historical menagerie. He has arrayed these counterfeits inside the Pulitzer Fountain—as fake as any LV handbag on Canal Street, they illustrate centuries of sham tangles between civilizations as often cooperating as not. Sound familiar?

Michael Bloomberg put it brilliantly last month at the unveiling of Zodiac Heads: "Artists risk everything to create. They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism. But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that." After the "Free Ai Weiwei" signs are taken down, and the petition drives have dried up, it will remain for artists like Anish Kapoor—who cancelled an elaborate show last week at Beijing's National Museum—to take up Ai's cause and example. If everything can be art today, then surely we should begin with guaranteeing its freedom of expression.

Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads
Britt Ernst
Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads
Ai: The moxie man
Elisa Haberer
Ai: The moxie man

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UPDATE: The UK’s Guardian newspaper is reporting today, June 22, that Ai Weiwei has just been freed after two and a half months of detention by Chinese police. Police say they have released the artist on bail “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes,” and also “in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.” A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch predicts that the artist will probably have to apply for permission to travel outside the country and have to report regularly to the police. The parallels to the “official” totalitarian miseries experienced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Soviet Russia continue. After the smoke clears in next few weeks, we will know whether Ai has traded his police cell for a prison as big as China. Whatever his new conditions, he has already done more than anyone living to earn the next Nobel Peace Prize.

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