Written by Stephy Chung, CNN
As the world grapples with unprecedented foreclosure measures, Ai Weiwei finds himself in familiar territory. The outspoken artist spent almost three months in a tiny room when he was detained by Chinese authorities in 2011.
He was later charged with tax evasion, an accusation widely interpreted as a punishment for his political activism. After his release, Ai’s passport was confiscated and he was placed under close surveillance in Beijing.
In Cambridge, England, where the 62-year-old dissident now resides, self-isolation has created similar feelings of loneliness. “You (feel) dissociated, you dysfunction and you are not sure of your own future … you try to imagine a behavior compared to the others”, he said, by telephone, restrictions put in place to contain the coronavirus. .
A photo taken on May 16, 2019 shows a view of Ai Weiwei’s installation “S.A.C.R.E.D” during a retrospective of the artist’s work at the K21 art museum Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany. The dioramas of “S.A.C.R.E.D” (2013) illustrate the activist’s period of detention. Credit: INA FASSBENDER / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
Ai has criticized how China handled the epidemic, which was first identified in the city of Wuhan and has since spread to more than 210 countries and territories, infecting more than 2.5 million people. . In a recent opinion piece for The Art Newspaper, he argued that the Communist Party’s containment tactics have proven “the effectiveness of authoritarian rules”, while the inability of other countries to control the pandemic revealed “the disadvantages and bad practices of free and democratic societies. ”
These comments are consistent with his broader assessment of the extended powers of the Chinese state. Many issues raised by the pandemic, from censorship to surveillance, are subjects that Ai has spent years exploring.
Controlling the story
Much has been done in recent weeks by China’s purported efforts to cover up the initial virus epidemic – an allegation that Beijing firmly denies.
According to Ai, the selective transmission of information from China from the start has provided a “chance for the virus to spread.” However, understanding China’s motivations is as important to Ai as the alleged concealment or suggestion that the number of infections and deaths in the country has been underreported.
“The blame from the West is very superficial,” said Ai. “They (in the West) only talk about China practically – (let that) not disclose information. But they never ask, ‘Why?’ “
According to Ai, China would not function as a state without “controlling and manipulating” information.
“For China, everything is for political use. And they have a clear reason to give the numbers they want, or to limit or change or distort the so-called truth, “said Ai.
“A number mean nothing to them,” he said, adding that there is little recognition of the individuals and “deep souls” who take stock of the dead. “In many cases in China, you don’t even get the real names or the number of people. They are completely lost because the state wants to (preserve) its own image. “
The questioning of the official accounts is not new ground for Ai. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed nearly 90,000 people in western China, Ai put together a team to identify his youngest victims by meeting their parents and recording their names , dates of birth and schools attended – information the government had tried to censor.
At least 5,000 children have been killed, many of them crushed under the weight of poor-quality school buildings. In her 2009 work “Remembering”, Ai arranged 9,000 backpacks for students to read, “All I want is for the world to remember that she lived happily ever after for seven years,” a line a letter written by the mother of a victim.
“Remembering” by Ai Weiwei. View of the installation at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, 2009
According to Ai, history is destined to repeat itself in China if the government does not admit the mistakes of the past.
“China will never learn. It doesn’t matter what kind of disaster they face. The only thing they learn is how they use this authoritarian power to manipulate history. This kind of arrogance and success will lead them to another crisis. .
” Too bad. Obviously they have to change their behavior and learn to be more scientific and to trust their own people, but simply, there is no trust in China between the leaders and their own people, between the people them -same and between individuals “” understanding of the current situation and (their) future. “
Maintaining state control may have been made much easier. During the pandemic, Chinese authorities developed a color-based “health code” system designed to track the movement of people and stop the spread of the virus. Using mobile technology and big data, unique digital QR codes have been assigned to hundreds of millions of citizens, indicating their health status and giving them access to (or disqualification from) public transportation, restaurants and shopping centers.
As a result, Ai believes the virus has only strengthened what he calls the “police state,” allowing the government to continue collecting data and better understand its citizens. “China has 1.4 billion people and a single power. They actually need to maintain this type of power by knowing everyone – what’s in their minds and behavior. “
Ai began monitoring the initial virus outbreak in Wuhan – where a number of his relatives and friends live – in January, working remotely with local teams to film what was going on in the field and in hospitals.
It was his nights. He spent his days conducting rehearsals for Puccini’s “Turandot” for the Rome Opera House, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Ai’s interpretation of the early twentieth-century booklet was already based on contemporary subjects close to his heart: the global refugee crisis and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Covid-19 crisis was a late addition – a full scene of actors was to appear in the last scene dressed in medical clothing.
Two actors during the “Turandot” rehearsals in early March 2020.
He first questioned the idea, wondering if references to the virus “would make sense.”
It turns out that it was premonitory. The production opening night was postponed to just a few weeks, with the number of cases exploding in Italy in early March. “I was shocked,” he said. “Not because we had to stop the opera, but because my work of art, which I had been preparing for over a year, was in contradiction with reality. “
This reality has since become increasingly bleak, with the number of deaths worldwide reaching more than 177,000. Many of these deaths occur on their own, in hospital isolation areas away from family and friends.
The idea that so many people are absent for the “last glimpse or the last sentence of their loved ones before leaving this planet” deeply saddens the artist.
“I am like another person, totally lost,” he said. He measured the role of art during this period.
“Even in terms of good writing, philosophical thinking or good image, I cannot really compare or face the deep sadness, sadness and disappointment of our current situation, or even our understanding of to come up. “
So right now, he’s planning documentaries, writing arguments and conducting interviews. And, on occasion, “the form will come out” – like on a recent walk to Cambridge, when he found a log on a patch of grass.
He took him home and, with his son, carved a roll of toilet paper.