Hitting screens: film portrait of an artist and critic
Right in time Ai WeiweiÂ´s house arrest is being lifted: The documentation Ai Weiwei: Never sorry hits screens these days. For three years the producer Alison Klayman shadowed his life, resuming in an film portrait of one of the most compelling public figures in China. Now everybody gets the chance to gaze at the life of the known conceptual artist.
The film isnâ€™t a media unknown to the artist: Ai Weiwei uses social media and finds a great platform for political activism in the Internet. Artist and regime critic, Ai Weiwei unites these positions. Trough art he communicates and expresses himself, creatively and radically he deals with his China. In his political-artistic driven activism the dissident tries to make grievance obvious and fight injustice. He aims at a world, free of human rights abuse.
Ai Weiwei works with pictures and letâ€™s them talk. The outcome is volitional, but due to his behavor the artist and his family are affected by reprisals on a regular basis. Last year he was detained for a few months and has spendt his days since in house arrest in Peking.
Last year a panel discussion on Ai Weiweiâ€™s role in art and activism was held at Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg, Germany (co-organized by Cultura21 and the FIDH).
Cultura21 is a transversal, translocal network, constituted of an international level grounded in several Cultura21 organizations around the world.
Cultura21â€²s international network, launched in April 2007, offers the online and offline platform for exchanges and mutual learning among its members.
The activities of Cultura21 at the international level are coordinated by a team representing the different Cultura21 organizations worldwide, and currently constituted of:
– Sacha Kagan (based in LÃ¼neburg, Germany) and Rana Ã–ztÃ¼rk (based in Berlin, Germany)
– Oleg Koefoed and Kajsa Paludan (both based in Copenhagen, Denmark)
– Hans Dieleman (based in Mexico-City, Mexico)
– Francesca Cozzolino and David Knaute (both based in Paris, France)
Cultura21 is not only an informal network. Its strength and vitality relies upon the activities of several organizations around the world which are sharing the vision and mission of Cultura21
On June 16th, Cultura21 â€“ together with partners â€“ invited panelists with broad experience and knowledge concerning the art sector and the human rights situation in China for a discussion around the arrest of Ai Weiwei. The event was attended by more than a hundred people of all ages.
One week after the event, on Wednesday June 22nd, we were very glad to hear about Ai Weiweiâ€™s release, almost three months after the arrest at the Beijing Capital Airport.
But many questions remain unanswered â€“ also by exceptionally quiet Ai Weiwei. The Chinese authoritiesâ€™ statement that Ai Weiweiâ€™s release is related to â€œhis good attitude in confessing his crimesâ€ (tax evasion) signals the ongoing threat of potential criminal prosecution.Â Also, it must be kept in mind, that many human rights defenders and activists who were arrested or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression, association, and assembly (rights that are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law) still remain imprisoned. Read more (FIDH press release)
The topics dicussed on June 16th at Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg remain of greatest actuality. In the following, please find a review of the debate â€œCan Artists Change China?â€, synthesized by the FIDH in collaboration with Cultura21:
The panelists debated the role of Ai Weiwei and the international media. â€œHe may be famous in the West but within China his popularity/name-recognition is limited, which is also due to censorshipâ€, said documenta12 director Roger Buergel. The panelists agreed that the Western media portrayal of Ai Weiwei is overly simple as it does not address the complexities of the art world in China or the human rights situation. However, it was pointed out that the mediaâ€™s attention on Ai Weiwei does not alleviate the need to draw attention to the bigger picture of the current crackdown on many human rights activists.
Crossing the red lines
Ai Weiweiâ€™s disappearance demonstrated that no one is safe from the strong arm of the government if he or she criticizes the government publicly and on issues considered â€˜very sensitiveâ€™ by the authorities, such as the issue of shoddy construction in Sichuan which was deemed responsible for the deaths of thousands of students in the 2008 earthquake. The frustration and discontent of a majority of the Chinese population in the face of economic inequality and social injustice is boiling over in many ways, and in Ai Weiwei such anger finds an outlet that has tremendous reach in the international community (thus making him an increasing threat to the regime).
Spurious claims of economic growth as a human rights achievement
The Chinese government often argues that it has lifted millions out of poverty and that the Chinese people are freer now than ever before. Such propagandistic arguments mask the reality that the increasing wealth of the state strengthen the governmentâ€™s ability to control domestic unrest and activism. It has been reported that for the first time spendings on public security have exceeded those of national defense/military. Even in the current context of aggregate economic growth, there are thousands of public demonstrations per year recorded.
Role of artists in social transformation
Artists take great risks to engage themselves in social activism, but they are a minority among the various groups that advocate for human rights and rule of law. Not all artists take political positions and many do not. Many artists are elitist and urban-based and their main objective is fame and profits. Some who wish to make political statements through their art also face other real-life restraints, such as finances. Foreign funding to domestic institutions, including NGOs, is heavily scrutinized, manipulated and restricted by the authorities.
Role of the international community
There is a need to better understand the complexities in China in order for external actions and advocacy be effective. There is worry that external demands may be seen as â€˜colonialâ€™ and would certainly be spinned this way by the Chinese government to generate nationalistic support among the population. On the other hand, silence is not an option. In fact, strong public outcry, including rumors that Ai has been tortured, may have forced the government to let his wife see him and prove that his physical condition was fine.
Since April 3rd 2011, world-renowned contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei is detained by the police in China, sparking worldwide protests from governments, human rights groups and art insti-tutions, among others, calling for his release. How far can artists contribute to social transformations towards sustainability in contemporary China? On June 16th 2011, a special evening is being organized at Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg (Germany), asking this and other questions, around the case of Ai Weiwei and addressing the contemporary human rights situation in China, as well as the roles of artists engaged in questions of social transformations and sustainability. An 18-minute segment produced by filmmaker Alison Klayman will be shown as part of the event, followed by a panel debate with the exhibition organizer Roger M. Buergel, international human rights activist David Knaute and conceptual artist Anke Haarmann.
The panel will be moderated by political scientist Ursula Scheid as well as Volker Kirchberg, who is the professor for cultural distribution and cultural organization at Leuphana University. The film will be preceded by a press conference by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and by a lecture on artistic initiatives for ecology and sustainability in contemporary China.
About the participating speakers:
Roger M. Buergel studied art, philosophy and economics. He is an exhibition organizer and author. In the years 1997 to 2004 he realized several exhibitions together with Ruth Noack, among them â€žThe Governmentâ€œ at the Kunstraum of the University of LÃ¼neburg. He was director of documenta 12 in Kassel (2007), a show for which he had invited Ai Weiwei. In the last years he has been teaching at the art school of Karlsruhe. 2010 he curated an exhibitions with works by Ai Weiwei in the new DKM museum in Duisburg. He is known to be one of the persons with the highest familiarity with the artistic work of Ai Weiwei.
Anke Haarmann is a conceptual artist, curator, PhD in Philosophy and PostDoc at the ICRA/ IKKK, Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg. Since 2004 she visited China and Japan many times for theoretical and artistic research. Her work focused recently on public urban space, art interventions and art in the public interest. In 2008 and 2010 she realized two exhibition platforms on Shanghai in collaboration with Chinese and German artists. The 2010 platform in Shanghai had to be canceled due to pressure by local authorities, and turned to the public space as its venue.
David Knaute is the Asia Director for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). As such, he works closely with FIDH member organization in China, Human Rights in China (HRIC), which operates in exile from New-York City. David has previous human rights work experiences in conflict-affected countries in Asia.
Ursula Scheid studied Political Sciences with a focus on China at the LMU Munich, attended the German School of Journalism (DJS) and worked as a free writer. In 2003, she further studied at the Munich Film School (University of Television and Film). Her first documentary is an essay about the new bourgeoisie in China. While she was living in Beijing for four years, she got to know Ai Weiwei and accompanied him in his documentation project Fairytale.
Volker Kirchberg: Director of the ICRA/ IKKK, Volker Kirchberg is University Professor for Cultural Distribution and Cultural Organization in Applied Cultural Sciences at Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg. He is the author of numerous publications on culture and urban sociology at the interface of market, state and the non-profit sector. His current research includes studies of museum visitors (e.g. â€œeMotionâ€ project), cultural consumption, and multiple relations between creativity and urban development.
About the Lecture:
At 19:45 Sacha Kagan will give an introductory lecture about the engagements of contemporary artists for sustainability in China. He is Research Associate at the ICRA/ IKKK, Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg and founder of the International level of Cultura21 â€“ Network for Cultures of Sustaina-bility, as well as the International Summer School of Arts and Sciences for Sustainability in Social Transformation (ASSiST). The focus of his research and cultural work lies in the trans-disciplinary field of arts and (un-)sustainability. His work in past years involved several Asian-European cultural exchanges, including a conference in Beijing in 2008 organized by the Asia Europe Foundation.
About the documentary film â€œAi Wei Wei: Never Sorry: Can an Artist Change China?â€
The 18 minutes film we will project on June 16th at 20:30 is a preview of an upcoming feature-length documentary film About Ai Weiwei by Alison Klayman. From 2008 to 2010, Beijing-based journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access to Ai Weiwei. Klayman documented Aiâ€™s artistic process in preparation for major museum exhibitions, his intimate ex-changes with family members and his increasingly public clashes with the Chinese government. Klaymanâ€™s detailed portrait of the artist provides a nuanced exploration of contemporary China and one of its most compelling public figures.The filmâ€™s website is: www.aiweiweifilm.org/en.
About the partnership with the FIDH: The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) will be present at the event. Apart from David Knaute (see above), the Permanent Representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), based in Bangkok, Thailand, will be attending. Shiwei Ye works closely and coordinates action with FIDHâ€™s member or-ganizations in Southeast Asia. Shiwei has prior experience working on China-related projects for US-based human rights organizations.
About the organizers
This event is organized by Cultura21 and by several departments of the Leuphana University Lu-eneburg, i.e. the students cinema association (Unikino), the Institute of Cultural Theory, Research, and the Arts (IKKK) and the Kunstraum, in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Cultura21 â€“ â€œcultural fieldworks for sustainability,â€ is a transversal, translocal network gathering artists, cultural practitioners and aca-demics engaged for the promotion of â€˜cultures of sustainabilityâ€™ in the sense of a sustainable, social ecological change process. It is constituted of an international network and of several Cultura21 organizations around the world. In Germany, where Cultura21 first emerged in 2005, the organization â€˜Cultura21 Institut eVâ€™ supports the German-speaking Cultura21 network. Website: www.cultura21.net.
The Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg is a German University committed to humanistic values of liberal arts and sciences as basic principles for self-determined lives, successful careers, and social responsibility in a changing global society. â€œA university for civil society in the 21st century,â€ Leuphana introduced a university model which is unique within the German academic landscape. Website: www.leuphana.de.
FIDH is an international NGO defending all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, set out in the Universal Declaration of Hu-man Rights. It is also a federalist movement that acts through and for its national member and partner organizations. By remaining in per-manent interaction with local civil societies, it can rapidly identify local obstacles to the work of defenders and take the necessary steps to mobilise support for them. Website: www.fidh.org.
Unikino is Leuphana University LÃ¼neburgâ€™s students association for cinema. This honorary, self-organized group of students often coop-erates with seminars, courses and other groups of interest who are in need of movies to complete their aspired informational goal. During a normal semester they regularly show movies on Mondays.
The Kunstraum of Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg is a contemporary art institution. Its exhibition program is based on collaborations of art-ists, curators and scholars of the humanities as well as the social sci-ences, including their students. Website: www.uni-lueneburg.de/interarchiv/projekte.html.
The Institute of Cultural Theory, Research, and the Arts (ICRA â€“ IKKK in German language) pursues theoretical and empirical research on culture and the arts, the scientific and cultural transfer from academia to praxis as well as teaching from perspectives based in the humani-ties, social and economic sciences. The Institute is organized in the following units: Philosophy, Sociology of the Arts, Cultural Marketing and Communication, Literary Studies, Cultural History. Website: www.leuphana.de/ikkk.
Organizer: Sacha Kagan (Leuphana University LÃ¼neburg)