The Chinese artist and human rights activist received a permit to enter Gaza during a surprise visit to Israel, which he posted about on Instagram. Ai’s tour is part of a documentary he is working on about refugees.
Since his arrival in the Gaza Strip this week, the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has created a social media stir, continuously posting pictures and videos to his Instagram account from various checkpoints, refugee camps, abandoned streets and border controls – but also from beaches, playgrounds and crowded markets.
The human rights activist landed unannounced at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport last Sunday, letting his followers know about his visit through an Instagram post showing his passport together with a valid stay permit granted by the Israeli border control.
After spending a few days in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, Ai continued his journey to the Gaza Strip, where he had planned to film parts of his documentary about refugees, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year.
Israeli authorities had initially refused to let him in, claiming that the visit would pose a threat to his life.
On Wednesday, however, the spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said that, after failing to do so at first, the production company working with Ai had submitted an entry request and thus his visit to Gaza would be permitted.
For those not familiar with Ai Weiwei, here’s a little history on Ai Weiwei..
Ai Weiwei (Chinese: 艾未未; pinyin: Ài Wèiwèi, born 28 August 1957 in Beijing) is a Chinese Contemporary artist and activist. His father’s side’s original surname is 蔣Jiang. Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government‘s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.
Early life and work
Ai’s father was the Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. In 1958, the family was sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, when Ai was one year old. They were subsequently exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. Upon Mao Zedong‘s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976.
In 1978, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy and studied animation. In 1978, he was one of the founders of the early avant garde art group the “Stars”, together with Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, Huang Rui, Li Shuang, Zhong Acheng and Qu Leilei. The group disbanded in 1983, yet Ai participated in regular Stars group shows, The Stars: Ten Years, 1989 (Hanart Gallery, Hong Kong and Taipei), and a retrospective exhibition in Beijing in 2007:Origin Point (Today Art Museum, Beijing). In 2014, Ai had a piece named, “Illumination (2014) is housed in the old prison hospital, which looks and feels like the set of a horror film needing no embellishment. For this work, Ai has installed recordings of Tibetan and Native American chants in two psychiatric evaluation rooms, which are tiled chambers created for the observation of mentally ill patients. In these cramped rooms, the rhythmic noises—spiritual, strong, and culturally significant—contrast with the shiny mint-colored walls. The mix of clinical and consciousness is startling, bringing presence to a place that even when it was open and functioning was meant to reduce human to subject. Both haunting and aesthetically delightful, this ambitious exhibition exposes issues of freedom of speech and human rights by creating artistic possibility within and about a broken system. Giving a collective voice to silenced dissidents might just prompt newly sympathetic ears.”
Ai Weiwei, came top of London’s paid exhibitions list in 2015 with 4,335 visitors a day at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Time in the U.S.
From 1981 to 1993, he lived in the United States, mostly in New York City. He studied briefly at Parsons School of Design. Ai attended the Art Students League of New York from 1983 to 1986, where he studied with Bruce Dorfman, Knox Martin and Richard Pousette-Dart. He later dropped out of school, and made a living out of drawing street portraits and working odd jobs. During this period, he gained exposure to the works of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, and began creating conceptual art by altering readymade objects.
Ai befriended beat poet Allen Ginsberg while living in New York, following a chance meeting at a poetry reading where Ginsberg read out several poems about China. Ginsberg had travelled to China and met with Ai’s father, the noted poet Ai Qing, and consequently Ginsberg and Ai became friends.
When he was living in the East Village (from 1983 to 1993), Ai carried a camera with him all the time and would take pictures of his surroundings wherever he was. The resulting collection of photos were later selected and is now known as the New York Photographs.
At the same time, Ai became fascinated by blackjack card games and frequented Atlantic City casinos. He is still regarded in gambling circles as a top tier professional blackjack player according to an article published on blackjackchamp.com.
Returning from the U.S. to China
In 1993, Ai returned to China after his father became ill.He helped establish the experimental artists’ Beijing East Village and co-published a series of three books about this new generation of artists with Chinese curator Feng Boyi: Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995), and Gray Cover Book (1997).
In 1999, Ai moved to Caochangdi, in the northeast of Beijing, and built a studio house – his first architectural project. Due to his interest in architecture, he founded the architecture studio FAKE Design, in 2003. In 2000, he co-curated the art exhibition Fuck Off with curator Feng Boyi in Shanghai, China.
Ai is married to artist Lu Qing, and has a son from an extramarital relationship.
Political activity and controversies
In 2005, Ai was invited to start blogging by Sina Weibo, the biggest internet platform in China. He posted his first blog on 19 November. For four years, he “turned out a steady stream of scathing social commentary, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture, and autobiographical writings.” The blog was later shut down by Sina on 28 May 2009 due to its popularity and Weiwei’s outspoken attitude on events such as the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympic Games. Since then he has turned to Twitter and writes prolifically over the platform, claiming at least 8 hours online every day. He tweets almost exclusively in Chinese on the account @aiww. As of 31 December 2013, Ai has declared that he would stop tweeting but the account remains active in forms of retweets and Instagram posts.
Citizens’ Investigation on Sichuan earthquake student casualties
Ten days after the 8.0-magnitude earthquake took place in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, Ai led a team to survey and film the post-quake conditions in various disaster zones. In response to the government’s lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions, Ai recruited volunteers online and launched a “Citizens’ Investigation” to compile names and information of the student victims. On 20 March 2009, he posted a blog titled “Citizens’ Investigation” and wrote: “To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a “Citizens’ Investigation.” We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.”
As of 14 April 2009, the list had accumulated 5,385 names. Ai published the collected names as well as numerous articles documenting the investigation on his blog which was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009. He also posted his list of names of schoolchildren who died on the wall of his office at FAKE Design in Beijing.
Ai suffered headaches and claimed he had difficulty concentrating on his work since returning from Chengdu in August 2009, where he was beaten by the police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake. On 14 September 2009, Ai was diagnosed to be suffering internal bleeding in a hospital in Munich, Germany, and the doctor arranged for emergency brain surgery. The cerebral hemorrhage is believed to be linked to the police attack.
According to the Financial Times, in an attempt to force Ai to leave the country, two accounts used by him had been hacked in a sophisticated attack on Google in China dubbed Operation Aurora, their contents read and copied; his bank accounts were investigated by state security agents who claimed he was under investigation for “unspecified suspected crimes”.
Shanghai studio controversy
In November 2010, Ai was placed under house arrest by the Chinese police. He said this was to prevent the planned party marking the demolition of his newly built Shanghai studio.
The building was designed and built by Ai upon encouragement and persuasion from a “high official [from Shanghai]” as part of a new cultural area designated by Shanghai Municipal authorities; Ai would have used it as a studio and to teach architecture courses. But now Ai has been accused of erecting the structure without the necessary planning permission and a demolition notice has been ordered, even though, Ai said, officials had been extremely enthusiastic, and the entire application and planning process was “under government supervision”. According to Ai, a number of artists were invited to build new studios in this area of Shanghai because officials wanted to create a cultural area.
On 3 November 2010, Ai said the government had informed him two months earlier that the newly completed studio would be knocked down because it was illegal. Ai complained that this was unfair, as he was “the only one singled out to have my studio destroyed”. The Guardian reported Ai saying Shanghai municipal authorities were “frustrated” by documentaries on subjects they considered sensitive: two of the better known ones featured Shanghai resident Feng Zhenghu, who lived in forced exile for three months in Narita Airport, Tokyo; another well-known documentary focused on Yang Jia, who murdered six Shanghai police officers.
In the end, the party took place without Weiwei’s presence; his supporters feasted on river crab, an allusion to “harmony”, and a euphemism used to jeer official censorship. Ai was released from house arrest the next day.
Like other activists and intellectuals, Ai was prevented from leaving China in late 2010. Ai suggested that the authorities wanted to prevent him from attending the ceremony in December 2010 to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to fellow dissident Liu Xiaobo. Ai said that he had not been invited to the ceremony, and was attempting to travel to South Korea for a meeting when he was told that he could not leave for reasons of national security.
In the evening of 11 January 2011, Ai’s studio was demolished in a surprise move by the local government.
On 3 April 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing Capital International Airport just before catching a flight to Hong Kong and his studio facilities were searched. A police contingent of approximately 50 officers came to his studio, threw a cordon around it and searched the premises. They took away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer; along with Ai, police also detained eight staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. Police also visited the mother of Ai’s two-year-old son. While state media originally reported on 6 April that Ai was arrested at the airport because “his departure procedures were incomplete,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on 7 April that Ai was arrested under investigation for alleged economic crimes. Then, on 8 April, police returned to Ai’s workshop to examine his financial affairs. On 9 April, Ai’s accountant, as well as studio partner Liu Zhenggang and driver Zhang Jingsong, disappeared, while Ai’s assistant Wen Tao has remained missing since Ai’s arrest on 3 April. Ai’s wife said that she was summoned by the Beijing Chaoyang district tax bureau, where she was interrogated about his studio’s tax on 12 April. South China Morning Post reports that Ai received at least two visits from the police, the last being on 31 March – three days before his detention – apparently with offers of membership to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. A staff member recalled that Ai had mentioned receiving the offer earlier, “[but Ai] didn’t say if it was a membership of the CPPCC at the municipal or national level, how he responded or whether he accepted it or not.”
On 24 February, amid an online campaign for Middle East-style protests in major Chinese cities by overseas dissidents, Ai posted on his Twitter account: “I didn’t care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is often, which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most. What a jasmine!”