UPDATE: Ai Weiwei retweeted and favorited my tweet that links to the post below. Does that constitute an endorsement?
In what many will see as an excess of empathy for those who harshly punished him, Ai Weiwei, who promptly flew to reunite with his son and his son’s mother in Germany, after being reunited with his passport, gave a revealing interview with Joerg Haentzschel, arts and culture writer for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, in which he expressed surprising sympathy for the repressive government authorities responsible for his 81 days in captivity.
“From their [the Chinese government’s] point of view, it [his harsh treatment] makes a lot of sense,” Ai told Haentzschel. “Of course, I’m a fighter for freedom and human rights, so it might sound strange. But the social and political structure in China is quite fragile. If they lose some ground, everything might collapse. There is no established modern social structure in China….They are not different from me. They’re also human beings. They work within a social and political structure, which limits them. ”
Unsurprisingly, some of Ai’s admirers felt blindsided by his seeming willingness to turn the other cheek.
One of Ai’s supporters tweeted:
Perhaps most shockingly, Ai had a mild reaction to the Chinese government’s “not as unlawful” tactics in rounding up 200 human rights lawyers and associates around July 22, the day when Ai’s passport was unceremoniously returned to him. It had been confiscated in 2011, at the beginning of his 81-day detention.
In light of his seeming turnaround, Haentzschel delicately explored the question of whether Ai had softened his combative stance as an imposed condition for his new freedom:
Haentzschel: If my government would take my freedom for no reason, I don’t think I would say at the end that I have a better understanding of them….Did you have talks with any higher level people in the government?
Ai: No, never. I don’t even know who’s governing this case, after so many years. Only low-level people. But you can tell that they are acting on orders from very high up….All I ask for is a normal life. I want to say and do things that benefit our society. Not just criticize but also offer solutions.
Trying to understand China’s moves is like “playing chess with a person from outer space,” Ai had told New Yorker writer Evan Osnos in comments published shortly after his passport was returned. This deeply strategic artist may be thinking several moves ahead, analyzing his opportunities for attacking political pawns and checkmating kings in upcoming shows in the West, in which he can now directly participate.
Or, at 57, he may just be tired of fighting and eager to savor his personal and creative lives, after years of feeling embattled.
First up on his international exhibition calendar is his participation in the installation of his long-planned Royal Academy show (opening Sept. 19), which could put him in London at the same time as an October visit there by China’s President Xi Jinping (depending on how long Ai decides to linger, now that his 20-day U.K. visa has been extended to six months).
He may also soon be traveling to Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, for their “Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei” show: He tweeted that he would visit the NGV; a spokesperson for the Warhol Museum indicated to me that a Pittsburgh sojourn is also in the works:
We are currently working out details concerning Weiwei’s visits to the Warhol Museum. I should know more in a couple of weeks.
UPDATE 2: A spokesperson for the NGV confirmed to me that Ai “intends to travel to Australia for the exhibition.”
Ai also has an invitation from New York, tweeted by Mayor Bill de Blasio:
.@aiww Delighted your rights were restored. You’re always welcome in NYC — looking forward to your next visit.
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) July 23, 2015
Ai’s first survey show in the U.S., the 2012-13 Ai Weiwei: According to What?, co-organized by the Hirshhorn and Mori Art museums, fell surprisingly flat, with a disjointed and lifeless installation (which I decided not to write about):
By contrast, Ai’s 2014 mega-installation, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, the result of intense long-distance collaboration with Cheryl Haines, founder of San Francisco’s FOR-SITE Foundation, was a triumph:
I eagerly anticipate forthcoming shows, where he can be hands-on, with direct experience of exhibition venues and all the advantages of free expression—never an option for him in China. Whether he feels a need to stay cautious, so that Chinese authorities will make good on their promise to allow him to return, remains to be seen.