Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei dropped a bomb on his Instagram followers Wednesday morning: he got his passport back.
This news is huge to anyone who follows Ai’s career. In spite of his meteoric rise in popularity across the planet, Ai has been unable to attend his own shows abroad. The reason? His passport was confiscated in 2011 following his arrest by the Chinese government for tax evasion. The real reason? Ai is a vocal critic of China’s position on human rights and free speech. This, of course, upset some soulless bureaucrats and they decided to intimidate him, detain him for 81 days and fine him $2.4 million. We’re skeptical of the tax evasion charge, given that Ai was scooped up amid a country-wide crackdown on political activists. The government followed up on the arrest by doing thuggish things like keeping Ai’s studio under 24/7 surveillance and placing cameras in his compound. Associated Press photographer Ng Han Guan snapped a great photograph of some cops looking macho while trying to intimidate a guy who makes art and ceramics for a living.
“Ai Weiwei and his many supporters around the world are thrilled at the news that his passport has been returned after 600 days,” Ossian Ward from Lisson Gallery, which represents Ai Weiwei, told artnet News in an email. “Having been denied foreign travel since his 81-day detention in 2011, Weiwei now has the possibility to visit his son and his studio in Berlin as well as some of his many forthcoming museum exhibitions around the world, including major shows this autumn in London, Paris, Helsinki and Melbourne. However, he intends to remain based in Beijing, his home,” Ward added.
What does this mean? China, while moving at the glacial speed of government, could be trying to improve its public image by realizing how counter-productive their campaign against Ai appears to the rest of the planet. Ai will finally get to be present at his exhibitions abroad (with bragging rights to boot). He’ll be able to speak about his art and about the motivations that drive him. Maybe the staff at CFile will get the chance to shake the guy’s hand. We have been active supporters of this artist since our site began broadcasting which earned us the honor of being blocked by the master of the web in China. Perhaps now we can be allowed in.
The poetic thing about this story, though, is the lesson it teaches. The government tried to silence Ai and they lost. They flinched. They look like fools. Hopefully Ai Weiwei’s story will inspire other thinkers who find themselves in similar situations.
Bill Rodgers is a Contributing Editor at CFile.
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