Remembering in an Age of Forgetting

The struggle to preserve the work of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei presses on.

Lisa Yun Lee

The case of artist Ai Weiwei reminds us that, in the era of Facebook petitions and Twitter-organized flash mobs, the question of how one effectively protests during a media blackout is urgent. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

The whole world is watching.” In the 1960s, this admonition was adopted as a rallying cry for social change. Injustices would henceforth be documented and broadcast. Shocking images of the cruelty, racial discrimination and inequality suffered by African Americans – caught on film by photographers like Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson and Dan Budnick – helped fuel the mass movement for civil rights.

China's technological achievements, exponential growth and massive build-environments are accompanied by a devolution of rights and the emaciation of cultural freedom and expression.

But what happens when the persecuted and oppressed simply vanish, disappeared by government forces that control, block and manipulate the media? What form of expression should we utilize and what medium should our outrage employ when the Internet, newspapers, radio and television are expunged of any word or image of the victims?

This is the situation faced by Melissa Lam, a Hong Kong-based curator, and Aaron Levy, of the Philadelphia-based Slought Foundation, who are working to curate documents related to Fairytale, a 2007 art piece by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei. For Fairytale, Ai took 1,001 Chinese people to Kassel, Germany, for six days to view and participate in Documenta 12, a European art exhibition. The extraordinary event of 1,001 Chinese citizens traveling outside of China, many for the first time, enabled Ai and the participants to discuss questions concerning identity, memory, love and the possibility of cultural dialogue.

To mark the upcoming fifth anniversary of this project, Lam and Levy had been translating the recorded interviews that Ai conducted. In this way, translation becomes another form of cultural exchange – one that makes public the documented experiences, memories and understandings of the participants. Lam and Levy were also planning to contact Fairytale participants to further chronicle their experiences and understandings. The project was interrupted, however, on April 3, when authorities disapppeared Ai, closed his studio and confiscated his art and archive. Ai’s case reminds us that, in the era of Facebook petitions and Twitter-organized flash mobs, the question of how one effectively protests during a media blackout is urgent.

Ai, the son of revered Chinese poet Ai Qing, is renowned for both his architectural and artistic works, as well as his passionate support for social justice and political reform. His work ranges from the iconic Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympic Stadium (2008), which he designed with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & De Meuron, to the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, which sought to uncover the names of the thousands of children who died in May 2008 when an earthquake destroyed shoddily constructed schools.

Ai’s detention – he was disappeared for 81 days – was the most high-profile in a crackdown that has resulted in the disappearance of dozens of activists, dissidents and lawyers. In all cases, police denied those arrested access to a lawyer and refused to inform their families of their whereabouts. Such procedures are now being codified under proposed revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law, which were published on the website of the National People’s Congress. If passed by the 2,987 Chinese Communist Party officials who make up China’s governing body, police will be allowed to detain suspects for up to six months at secret locations if they believe notifying relatives or a lawyer could hinder the investigation.” 

The proposed legislation could also lead to a formalization of house arrest – soft detention” in law enforcement parlance – a punishment commonly imposed on scholars, activists and other dissidents.

This buttressing of the security apparatus reflects anxiety over calls for a Jasmine Revolution” that followed the events of the Arab Spring. Fearing a movement for democratic reform, provincial bureaucrats in Daxing, a rural area outside of Beijing, destroyed entire crops of the fragrant, white-blossomed Jasmine plant, declaring it contraband and canceling the summer’s China International Jasmine Cultural Festival.

If it weren’t so tragic, it would be comical.

The government eventually allowed Ai’s wife to visit him, charged him with tax evasion and released him because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes.” The conditions of his bail prevent him from discussing what happened during his detention and from using social media. A source, however, gave Reuters a detailed account of his ordeal, which included more than 50 interrogations.

Ai, in an essay for Newsweek, wrote the following:

My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity … only your family is crying out that you’re missing. But you can’t get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. … You’re in total isolation. And you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. 

I was living in Beijing for the weeks leading up to Ai’s eventual release on June 22, and it was impossible to find information about Ai and the international campaign to free him. Websites with any mention of his name were blocked and censored, and the state-controlled media refused to discuss the case.

I only learned of Ai’s release when I got a text message from the United States while I was traveling to the Pudong Airport on the Shanghai Maglev train, the world’s first high-speed magnetic levitation rail line that can travel at a record 311 miles per hour. Ironically, China’s technological achievements, exponential market growth and massive built-environments are accompanied by a devolution of human rights and the emaciation of cultural freedom and expression. As Theodor Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics: Progress is the evolution of the slingshot into the atom bomb.

While in China, I witnessed street demonstrations for more affordable housing and against the leveling of historic districts for high-rise condominiums. These were cleared within minutes by the police, becoming memories for those who experienced them, with no trace of the protests surviving in the media.

In such situations, an act against forgetting becomes an act of resistance.

During the bleakest days of the Stalinist era, Russians would meet in backrooms and closets to whisper to one another, from memory, the banned poetry of Anna Akhmatova, urgently keeping her words of witness alive. In that spirit, Lam and Levy’s translation and curation of Fairytale, which continues and can be found at fairy​talepro​ject​.net, is an act of opposition – not only against the oppressive Chinese government, but against the collective amnesia so prevalent in the age of un-free media. Their undertaking invites us to rethink what kinds of public spaces need to be created, fostered and nurtured to provide for collective experience, organizing and resistance.

Or, as Ai said in one Fairytale document: In this material world, the space for thought is narrowing; the world is lacking in imagination and meaning. Stories, dreams, fantasies – they could all become vehicles for expression.”

Lisa Yun Lee is cofounder of The Public Square, a nonprofit organization that fosters the exchange of ideas about cultural, social and political issues. She also is working on a book about Theodor Adorno for Routledge.
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