Ai Weiwei’s Eighty-One Days

Maura Cunningham reviews Barnaby Martin’s Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei for the Times Literary Supplement. The book is based on a series of interviews with the artist about his detention in 2011, conducted before Ai began to brazenly disobey orders not to speak to journalists following his release.

Despite the harshness of Ai’s treatment, Cunningham finds Martin’s portrayal of China as a whole excessively bleak. His grim assessment seems to be shared by Ai himself, however:

Martin (who first came to China in 1990, only a year after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations had been crushed) appears primed to believe the worst about the Chinese government, describing the country as a totalitarian state in terms that imply a much more ominous and repressive atmosphere than the one I encounter living in Shanghai. China undeniably lacks the rule of law, and vocal dissent regularly provokes state retaliation. Many artists and writers engage in self-censorship to avoid trouble, while activist lawyers gingerly negotiate the legal system, aware that their efforts might result in nothing but their own arrest. Yet at the same time, these groups do have some freedom to act (albeit in a tight sphere), and their movements do not automatically provoke a crackdown by the state. In small, incremental ways, China has loosened up since 1989.

Ai Weiwei looks at this gradual expansion of the activism landscape and says: not enough. He wants a complete overhaul of the system. Through his art and, even more importantly, his blogging and tweeting, Ai demands transparency and accountability from the Chinese government. […] [Source]

Though he complains of historical errors and out of date sources, Jonathan Mirsky’s take at The Literary Review is effusive:

Hanging Man is the most detailed, comprehensive and eloquent English-language account of what happens these days to Chinese political prisoners. It is horrifying and should make apologists for the People’s Republic of China, such as Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, think again. [Source]

The Huffington Post interviewed Martin as an adaptation of the book was being performed on stage in London to generally positive reviews (though The Scotsman’s Fiona Mountford found the experience an “authentically stultifying” reflection of the detention itself). Martin described the book’s conception:

We wanted to get down every detail, every conversation he could remember. Over a period of eight hours, we did a recording of what happened when he disappeared into the bowels of the beast. It’s a surreal story, very frightening and thoroughly gripping. The people interrogating him didn’t understand who he was and what his art meant. They thought he was a hooligan, a junk salesman in trouble. He had to convince them. That was one of the themes that ran through the interviews.

The book was meant to tell the story of China through the life of Ai Weiwei and his experience, to show people what was going on. Obviously, China spends a lot of money trying to convince the world that they’re civilized. In reality, they don’t behave like that in these darkened rooms. The idea is to shed some light on them. [Source]

Scenes from Ai’s detention were also recreated in the video for his musical debut, Dumbass. This week, Ai released a follow-up, Laoma Tihua, including footage from his 2009 documentary of the same name. The song refers to a violent police raid on his hotel room while he was investigating ‘tofu’ school construction after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Read previous CDT posts about Ai Weiwei, including another interview about his time in jail with Playboy Magazine.