News / Arts & Entertainment

Expression on Trial in Play of Ai Weiwei's Arrest

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei sits on a chair in the courtyard of his studio, in Beijing, June 20, 2012.
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei sits on a chair in the courtyard of his studio, in Beijing, June 20, 2012.
Reuters
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was in two places at once on Wednesday night. In Beijing, barred from leaving the country, and in the leafy London borough of Hampstead - on stage.

Such a breaking of boundaries has come to define Ai. The sculptor, photographer and installation artist is famed for filling London's Tate Modern with porcelain seeds and as a consultant on China's National "Bird's Nest" Stadium. But he also has snapped his wife flashing her knickers in Tiananmen Square.

The world premiere of "#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei," which opened to a packed Hampstead theater, addresses the artist's clash with Chinese authority over freedom of expression. The title's hashtag is a reference to Ai's prolific use of social networking site Twitter to get his message out.

"There is a force you cannot avoid," says Ai's character, played by Benedict Wong, as the play opens. He is standing in front of his new work, four connected walls which stand inside a gallery, surrounded by visitors and fans. He signs an autograph.

As the scene changes the walls become a prison cell.

Just hours before in Beijing, Ai told Reuters that the play based on Barnaby Martin's book "Hanging Man" was the fruit of interviews that he hoped would help to demonstrate the monolithic truths of a Chinese state which holds him physically captive, but can't seem to stop his ideas from seeping out.

"This society lacks transparency, lacks a platform and space for public opinion. So that's why I accepted the interviews and the play finally worked out," Ai told Reuters TV.

Howard Brenton's play tells the story of the Chinese artist's 81 days in custody.

Ai was arrested at Beijing airport in April 2011 before a flight to Hong Kong. He was held without explanation before being charged with tax evasion and given a $2.4 million bill.

He supposedly confessed to the charge while in custody but later disputed it, losing his ultimate court appeal last September.

"I think the reason behind the play is to let the truth out, to let the people in the world understand what kind of condition we live in," Ai said.

Kafkaesque theme

The telling of the story of Ai's darkest hours to date is in keeping with the artist and the theme of the play - that personal expression is sacrosanct.

"Everything mentioned [in the play] is fact and it also is an art work," said Ai.

The play will be streamed for free on the Internet, a first for a mainstream London theater, allowing the story to reach a global audience.

An artist's "job is about communication and expression. These are the core values of life, of being individuals. Most people don't realize that they have to fight for this, but for us artists, it's necessary," Ai wrote in a column for the Guardian this week.

This role of the artist frequently has been at odds with the Chinese party line. In the play Ai's interrogators call him a con-man and a swindler, selling junk for profit.

A Chinese minister, when asked what should be done with Ai, said "get him to go back to painting leaves and pagodas."

Throughout the play runs an absurdity, a lack of explanation or sense, that is reminiscent of Kafka.

"The play isn't deliberately Kafka-like, but the interrogations were often inexplicable, bizarre, they came at Ai Weiwei from very curious angles then will break down," said Brenton. "Rather like Kafka's 'The Trial,' Josef K.'s experience, he could not make sense of what was happening to him."

But unlike Kafka, humanity shines through the cracks in the system. There remains a sense of humor and of hope that freedom of expression cannot be suppressed forever.

At one point the interrogation of Ai breaks down into a conversation about how to make the perfect Beijing noodles. When he is moved to an army camp the soldiers guarding him complain about their jobs and the difficulty of their training.

By the end, the interrogators admit that "talking to you, we've changed our view of art."

In the background, however, violence always looms.

"One day though, we will have to open fire," a security official said about the threat of rebellion. "And we will," responded his colleague.

Ai told Reuters he was not afraid of fallout from the play. "I don't think it will bring me more danger because I have already gone through it."

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”