Ai Weiwei Protege Zhao Zhao Under Pressure

At Spiegel Online, Ulrike Knöfel profiles provocative Beijing artist Zhao Zhao and two of the gallery owners who have backed him. A former assistant to Ai Weiwei, Zhao appears in the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry in a videographic Mexican standoff with a security officer surveilling Ai outside a Chengdu restaurant. He was detained last November in connection with allegedly pornographic photographs he took of Ai posing naked with a group of women; this year, a number of his works bound for an exhibition in New York were seized by customs police.

Zhao relates that after his art shipment was confiscated, he was informed he had to pay a fine of 300,000 yuan, the equivalent of €38,000 ($48,000). It was penalty imposed for no crime, when in fact the authorities had simply refused to export his works. It could well be that Zhao will eventually be accused of tax fraud as well — supposed tax evasion is a favorite with Chinese authorities, and Ai Weiwei has been accused of the same.

Zhao says that he was further informed that even after paying the fine, he would not get his work back — but he would be allowed to view it one last time before it is destroyed.

The seizure is part of an ominous broader pattern, according to art dealer Alexander Ochs. From the same article:

[… Ochs] has started to wonder whether he should scale back his involvement in China. He says he was one of the first Europeans to put effort into the country’s contemporary art scene, “and now, almost 30 years later, I’m forced to recognize that we’re not able to create even the smallest of free spaces for our artists.”

He says the situation has grown more acute just within the last few months. Ai Weiwei, for example, was promised that he would get his passport back at the end of June, after it was taken from him last year. But that never happened, and travel abroad remains impossible for Ai. This development was seen within Beijing’s art scene as a warning to all artists critical of the regime. Then there’s the bill being charged to Zhao for the destruction of his artwork. “These are methods we know from Fascism, and I won’t support them,” Ochs says.

Zhao hopes, if he can raise the money, to record his final encounter with the confiscated pieces. At Der Tagesspiegel, Jan Cao recounts the story of one Zhao’s earlier works:

[…] He once stole metal from Anselm Kiefer’s “Library” installation, formerly on view in the main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Berlin, and cast it into a one Euro coin. The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum at first saw this incident as a humiliation and wanted to sue the rebellious young man, but the museum ended up buying this piece back as part of their collection.

Some of Zhao’s work, including his Euro coins, can be seen at Ochs’ site, with more, including a confiscated, deliberately shattered police officer statue, at Chambers Fine Art.