In April 2011, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and imprisoned in his home in China. Since then, he has become something of a Western folk hero – a champion of artistic individualism from a country traditionally suspicious of such things. In Hanging Man: the Arrest of Ai Weiwei, journalist Barnaby Martin explores the story of Weiwei’s arrest. The book, though, is more than a paean or protestation on the artist’s behalf. Instead, like one of Weiwei’s singularly realised installations, its scope is vast, ambitious and profound.
Weiwei was born in 1957, the year “the (Maosit) anti-rightist purge began”, but his story, wrapped as it is in China’s own evolution, begins long before this. In a lengthy introduction, Martin sets about contextualising modern China for the casual (Western) reader. That this never turns into a Wikipedia-like synopsis is quite remarkable. Martin achieves this by letting history flow through a series of moving, parable-like stories.
An affecting example comes in the story of Weiwei’s father Ai Qing, a celebrated leftist poet who, like countless others, fell foul of the Maoist regime and was exiled to the Gobi desert, where he took a job cleaning toilets. Weiwei described how he would follow his father to work and watch him applying all his strength and intelligence to the demeaning task… Weiwei says this is the greatest gift his father gave him… if one is always clear and precise in thought, always sincere, even a task you have been given to grind you down and humiliate you, can be redeemed in the end.
This powerful lesson echoes down through Weiwei’s own story; he now wears the visible scars of beatings and has been forced to “wear small shoes- a never-ending series of petty bureaucratic demands and administrative vexations in order to wear him down”.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of this book is its exploration of how art has influenced Chinese culture over the last 50 years; how a wave of Chinese artists were influenced by “The ideas of Dada and Picasso, of the cubists and the Fauvists, and Cezanne”. This though was 1980s Beijing, not Montparnasse in the early 1900s and much of this work could be (and was) “dismissed as derivative”. Martin though is quick and right to point out
Art means one thing when made by a European artist in the 1910s and something very different when it is made by a Chinese artist who has just stepped out of the cauldron of the Cultural Revolution.
This is a valuable lesson for those who view art’s value solely through the prism of New York, Paris or Berlin’s latest ‘ism’. In 1989, for example, Xiao Lu fired “a live round from a revolver into her exhibit”. Is this a simple imitation of the type of shock art Chris Burden was making twenty years earlier? It is hard to imagine a politically invigorated Beijing student caring about such alleged derivations (the shot has since been referred to as “the first shot of the Tiananmen Square massacre”). Art, it seems, can still be a powerful hinge on which the sensibilities of the wider world swing.
In Hanging Man, Martin paints an illuminating, compassionate portrait of an enigmatic and important artist. Around such a picture he frames and hangs the unfathomable narratives of present day China. One of Hanging Man’s most compelling images is of Weiwei’s Beijing studio-complex, once a bustling hive of creativity, but which now sits eerily empty. Like his father though, Weiwei continues to work with both precision and sincerity, convinced that his art (that all art) can be a means of redemption in the end. This book gives vital testament to that conviction.