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Tomorrow, 12 large sculptures by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will be unveiled in New York. But the artist won't be there. Ai Weiwei was taken into custody by Chinese authorities nearly a month ago. His family says the government has not told them where he is or why he's being held. Ai Weiwei has always been outspoken in his art and his life.

But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, recent events have put one of China's best-known artists under greater scrutiny.

LAURA SYDELL: Two years ago, right before the Olympics, I was introduced to Ai Weiwei at his sprawling studio complex in Beijing, by art critic Jeff Kelley.

Mr. JEFF Kelley (Art Critic): Laura Sydell, this is Ai Weiwei.

Mr. AI WEIWEI (Artist): Hi.

SYDELL: Nice to meet you.

Mr. KELLEY: Laura is with National Public Radio...

SYDELL: At the time, Ai was in the midst of another controversy. The artist and self-taught architect was one of the designers of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, called the Bird's Nest. Right before the competitions began, Ai quit the project, calling China's attitude towards the Olympics a pretend smile. Ai saw the moment as an opportunity to poke a hole in the government's public relations campaign.

Mr. WEIWEI: I can criticize government using this celebration to achieve their own ideology, you know.

SYDELL: As we spoke, several studio assistants worked around us, and cats freely roamed the studio. I sat with a microphone in front of Ai while he kept snapping my picture. Every day, he put up as many five posts and hundreds of photos on his blog. It was his creative response to being under government surveillance.

Mr. WEIWEI: Instead of let somebody monitor me, I put everything on my blog. They can just read my blog.

SYDELL: Ai had been blogging since 2005 at the invitation of Sina, one of China's major Internet portals. Instead of the celebrity blog it was hoping for, Ai gave Sina a stream of government criticism. The company asked Ai to tone it down.

Mr. WEIWEI: I told them why Im open this blog - because I believe in freedom of expression, and that you can always close down because it's your company. But I will never do self-censorship, you know.

SYDELL: Sina let Ai continue, but the company moved his blog off its front page.

Ai has been just as bold and confrontational in his visual art, says independent curator and critic Jeff Kelley.

Mr. KELLEY: He has taken the radical position of feeling as though it's his birthright to say whatever he wants to say.

SYDELL: But Kelley says the message may have been less direct in Ai's visual art and therefore, less threatening to Chinese authorities. For example, Kelley says the complex structure of the Olympic stadium was actually a statement about democracy.

Mr. KELLEY: There's hundreds and hundreds of joints; none of them repeat themselves. So in a certain way, it's a metaphor for the very idea of some cacophonous public speaking. And it's a very democratic space.

SYDELL: Ai's work also plays with what is sacred. In 1995, he created a series of photos in which he takes a valuable Han Chinese vase, drops it, and lets it break into pieces. Melissa Chiu, director of the museum at the Asia Society in New York, says he was commenting on what China was doing to its cultural heritage.

Ms. MELISSA CHIU (Director, Museum at the Asia Society): Great examples of architectural heritage were actually being destroyed to make way for new buildings. And it was also a time when within China, antiquities were not greatly valued.

SYDELL: Chiu says Ai also takes what's ordinary and makes it sacred. Right now, the Tate Modern in London is showing a work called Sunflower Seeds, which are a common Chinese snack. The artist commissioned a factory in China to make 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds that he spread across the museum's floor. Visitors are helping themselves.

Ms. CHIU: So he's making something from everyday into something very precious. And if you've come across anybody who's been in London in the past few months, they've all got their whole handful of Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds as gifts for people.

SYDELL: Tomorrow, 12, 800-pound animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac will be unveiled at the gateway to Central Park. Larry Warsh, the founder of AW Asia, is responsible for bringing the work to New York. He says Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads alludes to a recent incident in which two Qing Dynasty bronze sculptures of zodiac heads were put up for auction in Paris over the objection of the Chinese government.

Mr. LARRY WARSH (Founder, AW Asia): It does bring questions of looting and who owns what and, you know, where does this belong? Is it right for the two pieces to be in Paris? Should it be coming back to China?

SYDELL: Ai was scheduled to be in New York for the unveiling of Circle of Animals, but he's been in the custody of Chinese authorities since April 3rd. Most Western observers believe it was his blog that got him into trouble. Right after an earthquake devastated China in 2008, Ai began to collect the names of students who died when poorly constructed schools collapsed. The government refused to release names, so he posted them on his blog and created a wall of names.

Jeff Kelley remembers Ai showing him the work.

Mr. KELLEY: And at that moment, something buckled in me and I said to myself, OK, so is this art? And then immediately I said, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's doing it as an artist. You know, he's doing activism as an artist.

SYDELL: Ai collected over 5,000 names. It was only after he released them that the government came forward with its own list. For a long time, it seemed like Ai's international fame gave him more leeway to be critical of the government. But after revolutions broke out in the Middle East, spurred by social media, the climate in China shifted, says the Asia Society's Melissa Chiu.

Ms. CHIU: And so now we have a situation where it's not just him, but scores of others who have also been detained.

SYDELL: Back in 2008, I asked Ai why the government was leaving him alone then.

Mr. WEIWEI: If that's true, that means I really have to work harder, make them more conscious about my existence. Because, you know, there is so many people who cannot have a voice or who doesn't have the same rights.

SYDELL: Then Ai Weiwei paused and said: How can you predict what's in a dictator's mind? You know, if you really think about them, you are already a victim of them.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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