Earlier this week it was announced that Ai Weiwei and Joan Baez have been named as co-recipients of Amnesty International’s 2015 “良心大使” ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ award, the highest honour from the international human rights organisation which is bestowed upon figures “who have shown exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights, through their life and work.”
In a press release issued by Amnesty, Salil Shetty, Secretary General of the organisation is quoted as saying: “The Ambassador of Conscience Award is a celebration of those unique individuals who have used their talents to inspire many others to take injustice personally. That is why both Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei make such worthy recipients; they are an inspiration to thousands more human rights activists, from across Asia to America and beyond.” Adding specifically in relation to Ai’s nomination that: “through his work Ai Weiwei reminds us that the right of every individual to express their self must be protected, not just for the sake of society, but also for art and humanity.”
Previous recipients of the award include Malala Yousafzai in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2009, Nelson Mandela in 2006, Václav Havel in 2003 and U2 in 2005, which makes the slightly incongruous quote from the Edge embedded in the press release somewhat more relevant.
Reports of Ai’s award have circulated online within China, although major news outlets and government affiliated media platforms have unsurprisingly remained taciturn in response to the announcement. Hua Chunying 华春莹, Deputy Director and spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry Information Department declined to comment while Weiboscope, the Chinese social media data collection and visualisation project developed by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong reported on Thursday, 26th March that weibo posts mentioning Ai’s award had been censored and removed from the microblogging platform. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong press and overseas Chinese media have run prominent features on the award and tributes have also flooded in to Ai’s twitter page.
Given the negative reaction that characterised the official response to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, the sensitive nature of these awards and their subsequent lack of coverage by official media is to be expected. I’ve talked in previous posts about the phrase kōng yǐzi 空椅子 ‘empty chair’ being banned by online censors following Liu’s absence at the Nobel Ceremony, and ultimately how the symbolism of his vacant chair was turned into a potent image of activism and dissent (one that was also disseminated online in an Amnesty viral poster campaign). In a reactionary move designed to challenge the prominence of the Nobel award, much press attention was also devoted to the somewhat farcical ‘Confucius Peace Prize’ 孔子和平奖 which was inaugurated in 2010 with the aim of “promoting world peace from an Eastern perspective”. In response to the Nobel committee’s decision to select the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, the organisers chose to publicise their prize one day before the Nobel Peace Prize announced its laureate. The 2010 prize was awarded to the Taiwanese politician Lien Chan 連戰 for his efforts to re-unite Mainland China and Taiwan, although Mr. Lien himself rejected the prize. It was discontinued in 2011, although the China International Peace Research Center awarded the prize to Vladimir Putin in November 2011.
Ai is of course aware that the government is disdainful of these kinds of awards and like Liu, it is unlikely that he will be able to attend the awards ceremony in Berlin on the 21st May (although as with recent exhibition openings while he may not be able to physically attend it is likely he will make an online appearance via Skype). Following his detention in 2011 when he was detained for 81 days, Ai has been prevented from leaving China and his passport has been confiscated. Since 2013, he has been protesting against this imposed travel ban by placing flowers in a bicycle basket positioned outside the entrance to his compound in Caochangdi. The bike tellingly once belonged to Nils Jennrich, a German employee of the art shipping company Integrated Fine Art Solutions, who was arrested, along with his colleague Lydia Chu in Beijing in 2012 for allegedly undervaluing art imports to the mainland and evading customs duties. Given that Integrated Fine Art Solutions also handled Ai’s art shipping and that, like Ai, they were accused of tax evasion, many suspected that the arrests were politically motivated, while Ai himself has stated that “the real reason was that officials wanted to open a tax-free art zone and take over his business.” Ai therefore integrated the abandoned bike into his own practice, stating that he will place a fresh bouquet of flowers in its basket everyday until his passport is returned. Last Tuesday he reported on twitter that his travel ban has already been in place for 480 days.
Under the project title ‘With Flowers’ Ai has posted daily photographs of the floral-laden bicycle to his blog and his flickr account. Using the hashtag #flowersforfreedom many of Ai’s two hundred and seventy thousand twitter followers have also taken to posting floral tributes from around the world to his home page, raising awareness of his situation and demanding that restrictions on his freedom to travel be lifted.
Flowers for freedom derives its power from its admirable simplicity and universality, its ability to transform a seemingly ubiquitous, innocuous and fragile natural component, in all its myriad and colourful manifestations, into a potent visual symbol of resistance and activism. The collective nature of these visual tributes, facilitated and amplified by digital technology and by Ai’s own obsessive compulsive documentation of this daily act reflects the desire to bring some much needed vitality, beauty and humour to an otherwise oppressive situation, resulting in a playful provocation that also serves as a compelling and lucid critique of a system that appears to reject and constrict freedom of expression and of spirit.
Ai’s flowers have also been cropping up in more unexpected locations, most notably at his recent exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. One section of the exhibition, entitled ‘Blossom’ saw the artist transform the utilitarian fixtures in several hospital ward cells and medical offices into delicate porcelain bouquets, resulting in intricately detailed encrustations of ceramic flowers blossoming in the sinks, toilets, and bathtubs that were once used by hospitalised prisoners.
The work has been read in a variety of ways, its employment of porcelain, the material so synonymous with China’s cultural heritage that its alternative English title was interchangeable with the name of the country where it was first produced, drew obvious parallels with Ai’s previous porcelain works, including 2010’s Sunflower seeds and his later River Crabs. Blossom has also been read in the context of its site specificity, as the work could be seen as a symbolic offering of comfort to the imprisoned, “as one would send a bouquet to a hospitalised patient.” Others have interpreted its monochrome profusion of flowers rendered in polished and brittle porcelain perfection as an ironic reference to China’s famous Hundred Flowers Campaign 百花运动 of 1956, a brief period of government tolerance of free expression that was immediately followed by a severe crackdown against dissent. Borrowing a line from classical poetry, Mao declared “让一百百花齐放百家争鸣一百” “Let a hundred flowers blossom, and a hundred schools of thought contend”. In the subsequent crackdown and anti-rightist campaign which followed the campaign in 1957, Ai’s father Ai Qing was denounced and stripped of his writer’s association membership and his possessions and along with his family began an exile that was to last nearly twenty years.
In a photograph that appeared one week ago on Ai’s twitter feed it seems that the artist had placed his porcelain blossoms inside a replica of the now iconic bicycle basket positioned outside his studio. Marrying ‘Blossoms’ and ‘flowers for freedom’ together Ai highlighted not just the plight of modern day political prisoners but also the role of the artist as both public intellectual and social conscience.