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Jonathan Mirsky

Trials of the Artist

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
By Barnaby Martin (Faber & Faber 245pp 14.99)
Ai: speaking out

Hanging Man is the most detailed, comprehensive and eloquent English-language account of what happens these days to Chinese political prisoners. It is horrifying and should make apologists for the People's Republic of China, such as Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, think again.

Born in 1957, the son of Ai Qing, one of Mao's favourite poets until he was purged, Ai Weiwei may be the only Chinese artist of whom readers of the Literary Review have heard, if only because he is the creator, or organiser, of the hundred million handmade sunflower seeds exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2010. He was also one of the designers of the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although Barnaby Martin barely mentions, and does not explain, how Ai, such a notorious thorn in Beijing's vitals, was given that international responsibility.

What is terrifying about what Ai says at length, and uniquely, to the attentive Martin (who has lived in China, speaks Chinese and visited Ai both before and after his apprehension) is the experience of detention during the 81 days after his arrest in April 2011. One might say he had it easy. He was held in a room rather than a prison cell; some of his interrogators became increasingly sympathetic (two even telephoned him after his release to see how he was - I fear for the safety of these humane men); his food was at least adequate and he wasn't tortured. That is, he was never physically abused, though his guards were often inches away from him for hours at a time and they threatened him with extreme punishments. Nonetheless, after a few seconds you grasp what he means when he refers, as he often does, to what happened to him as torture. And Ai still thinks of himself as a prisoner.

Martin makes errors when he writes about China's modern history and uses out-of-date sources that prevent him from accounting for matters that nowadays are well understood. But I want to underline how grateful I am, as someone for whom China's dissidents and their fate have been a concern for decades, to Martin for eluding Ai's guards and giving the artist an unequalled chance to explain what befell him.

Why was he arrested in the first place? The principal answer, which applies to many Chinese who have disappeared into the Party's capacious cold store, is words - for which nobody, as Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, said at his trial, should be arrested (Liu is now serving 11 years for 'inciting subversion of state power'). There is a generous sample of these in Weiwei-isms (Princeton University Press, 120pp, 8.95), a collection of quotations that, had they been uttered outside China, would be a cure for insomnia. In China, each is a sputtering fuse. 'What can they do besides exile [me] or make me disappear? They have no imagination or creativity.' Or: 'My voice is not for me. Every time I make a sentence I think how many people for how many generations had a voice that no one could hear. At most they will be remembered as numbers; in many cases, even numbers don't exist.' Or, on the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo: 'This does not mean a meteor has fallen. This is the discovery of a star.'

Ai is no representational artist, as the Tate's sunflower seeds alone prove. Hanging Man in Porcelain is a wire coat hanger bent to become a face. What he says about art and reality would arouse no stir in any Western capital. But it is exactly those century-old differing notions of artistic reality, of Dada and Duchamp for example, that drive the Party nuts. For Mao and his successors reality was exactly what you see in the most obvious sense, while Ai, writes Martin, 'heaves his strange new creations into the ever broadening river of reality'. Ai told Martin that 'in the new condition people can look at the world differently and draw different conclusions. It's not practical or logical ... It deals with our imagination, our fears, our dreams ... they don't understand: "What other view?"' One day his interrogators said, 'OK, we found out! You're part of Dada.' 'I said, "Ahh, yes, you're a little closer".'

Sounds absurd, doesn't it? But this sea of ignorance explains why Ai, like Liu Xiaobo, who also saw more than the Party's 'reality', was accused of 'subverting state power'. Here is a further absurdity: Ai recalls that one interrogator suddenly said, 'You may be quite well known but I don't know you at all, trust me. I went on the internet to check about you.'

Further into the interrogation Ai was asked his profession: 'I said I was an artist.' The interrogator replied:

'How can you call yourself yi shu jia ['an artist']? You are so arrogant.' So I say, 'What else can I call myself?' ... He said the most you can call yourself is 'art worker', one who works in the art field. In the old category in China, during the Cultural Revolution, people were never called artist. They were called art workers. Everyone was a kind of worker. A farmer, a soldier ... They think all opinions from outside China is all political people against China, people who want to make China look bad. So, they only read the domestic internet, which is very negative about me, just government attacks.

And what about the interrogations themselves? Ai speaks at length about these ordeals. As Martin says, such persecutions are the norm, but we rarely hear about them first hand. 'You are not allowed to talk,' says Ai. 'You are just sitting here, in this pose: two hands on your lap, facing forward. And there are two guys sitting right close to you, one in your position and another one also like this, and they stare at you and will never move their eyes, will never blink even. And no emotion, absolutely silent ... from arrival in the morning until ten in the evening.'

One interrogator tells Ai he is sad because his 'mentor' had died. This turns out to be bin Laden. When Ai says that bin Laden is not the man's mentor he replies, 'I respect him. I hate Americans.' 'They all say they hate Americans [Ai spent 11 years in New York] but they don't really hate Americans. They love American songs, they love whatever Americans do but they've been told Americans are brutal, crazy, inhuman.'

Other interrogators are soldiers:

They walk like a performance. They are like robots ... If they want to change position, they stamp their feet like robots ... They cannot doze but they are so sleepy because their minds are empty. And sometimes they would argue. One would say, 'You cannot blink your eyes!' And the other said, 'You did, not me!' ... the cameras can really see if they doze ... They are really being highly watched ... There's two other soldiers whose job it is to search them ... they have to go with you, in this tiny [bath]room. One person before you, one behind ... Then you start to pee. Then they look at your dick because, you know, they have to make sure it's really a dick ... there's also a camera in the bathroom. They are being watched.

Now confined at home in Beijing, Ai Weiwei tells Barnaby Martin, who conceived this invaluable book, 'even when you're released you are still in this big, unlawful prison. Nothing really to protect you and everybody just listens to the decision of somebody high up ... I feel nothing. I feel empty ... this is a game that is almost not playable because there are no rules. Not even the poorest rules. They can do anything ... they are so ruthless and they make up new rules when they want.' It is lucky that Ai was in their hands for only 81 days. Liu Xiaobo must endure 11 years.


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Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specialising in Chinese affairs.


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