When Ai Weiwei went missing last week, there were reports it was part of a larger crackdown on dissent. On Monday there was news that the artist's driver and accountant have also gone missing prompting additional speculation that the Chinese government has set its sights on the famously provocative Ai. He has not been heard from since officials stopped him for questioning at the Beijing airport last week. Still, it's not certain what exactly the Chinese government has charged him with. There have been some references to the catch-all "economic crimes," but the international press has floated a couple other ideas.
The Australian ventures a guess that a 2009 project posted on his blog might have been a tipping point. The work shows a series of photographs showing Ai nude except for a strategically placed toy horse alongside a caption roughly translated: "Fuck your mother, the party central committee." Hardly subtle:
Another potential crime may be plagiarism. According to the Guardian, one of the claims that was reported in the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency references "Fairytale," Ai's 2007 submission to the German art show Documenta. By flying 1,001 Chinese citizens who might not otherwise be able to travel to the show in Kassel, Ai's project did resemble an idea by Professor Yue Luqing from 2006. (Yue sent 1,001 people from Shanghai to Xi-an as part of a project funded by the British Arts Council.) Yue told the Guardian, however, that he had never accused Ai of plagiarism and said the resemblance was nothing more than a "collision of ideas."
In this week's issue, Newsweek says that Ai has "erased the border between his art and his political action" and a friend says Ai "is an art piece himself." After helping to design the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, Ai decried the work claiming that it distracted the world from China's real problems and perhaps in response has focused increasingly on more direct criticism of the government and the party. Blurring the lines between art, performance and protest, Ai has of late merged his personality and his work into what some in the art community are calling "social sculpture." One work began as a blog campaign that identified 5,200 children who had died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake after the government refused to release names, and then Ai installed a sculpture of children's backpacks in Munich to memorialize the victims.
Ai had planned on unveiling his first public art commission in New York City this summer: a dozen bronze animal heads borrowed from the Chinese zodiac. The implications at play with this piece -- exporting symbols sacred to the Chinese but mass-produced for a Western audience -- sum up well how Ai plays aggressively the role of provocateur. Time will tell whether we find out a specific cause of Ai's detention, but we should have seen it coming.