Ai Weiwei: Capitalism and ‘Culturecide’ The idea of ‘cultural differences’ has been used as a justification for some of humanity’s worst crimes.

Well worth reading and reflecting upon the nexus between Western firms and Chinese repression:

Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, created a character named Ah Q who became both adored and feared among Chinese for his wicked display of flaws in China’s “national character.” When Ah Q grew scabies on his head, he forbade people in his presence from pronouncing the word “scabies” — or any other word that sounded like it might conjure it. Such words were taboo. “Verboten.”

A few weeks ago, here in Berlin, I received notice of a lawsuit that had been filed against me by a casino clerk. The complaint said I had called him a Nazi and a racist without any factual basis. I had two weeks to present a written response, failing which I would be subject to punishment. The notice came as I was about to set out for England. I passed the matter to a lawyer and departed.

But the complaint led me to prod my memory. Yes, about a year ago I had played cards at the Berlin Casino in Potsdamer Platz and at the end of play had put my chips on the counter of the cashier’s window for redemption. The clerk, who may have been in his 50s, was leaning back in his chair. He looked at me but made no move. Then, enunciating each word distinctly, he said in English, “You should say please.”

I was put off. “What happens if I don’t?”

“You’re in Europe, you know,” the clerk said. “You should learn some manners.”

I found the comment irritating but not wholly strange. Immigrants to Germany do hear such things.

I pressed on: “Fine, but you’re not a person who can teach me manners.”

That caused him to lean forward. He fixed me with a gaze and said, “Don’t forget that I’m feeding you!”

The ante was raised. Behind his almost comical facade, I sensed a truly powerful disdain and resentment.

“That’s a Nazi attitude,” I said, “and a racist comment.”

I gave up arguing and went to the casino manager. After a bit of investigating, the manager offered me a detailed apology, and that was that — or so I thought until the notice of the lawsuit arrived. I don’t know what will come of that complaint, but it is a small matter compared with the issue that I now want to raise.

The casino clerk had cloaked his ethnic prejudice as a question of culture: Immigrants (whom we Germans are “saving”) should be learning European civilization. This made me reflect on where else “cultural difference” has been a euphemism under which bias, slavery and genocide have all had their ways. Hitler’s Germany? Apartheid? Bosnia? The American South? Too often! But indeed these are cultural matters. Is Nazi thinking merely a tumor that can be cut from the body politic and discarded? I doubt it. For good or ill, cultures last for years.

In today’s world, authoritarian politics and predatory commerce cooperate to exploit “cultural differences.” Nowhere is this point clearer than in the symbiosis in recent decades between Western corporations and the Communist elite in China. The West offers capital and much-needed technology, while China’s rulers supply a vast, captive, hard-working, low-paid and unprotected labor force. Western politicians, as if trying to justify the unholy collusion, for years argued that rising living standards in China would produce a middle class who would demand freedom and democracy. It is clear by now that that has not happened. The Chinese elite, now far wealthier than before and as in control as ever, can laugh up its sleeve at the Westerners and their visions of inevitable democracy. Instead the West’s own hard-won democracy has become vulnerable.

But does the West know it? Look at Hong Kong. Courageous protesters have persisted for more than six months in confronting the world’s mightiest dictatorship, a regime with a record of ironclad rejection of both reason and compromise when it deals with protesters or rivals. Hong Kong’s young democrats have looked for support from the world’s democracies. They stand at today’s edge of what may well be the greatest confrontation of the 21st century. Can the Western world see that helping them is not charity but self-defense?

When protesters in Hong Kong look to the vast northwest area in China called Xinjiang, they can see what happens when Beijing-engineered change reaches full throttle. In recent years (at first barely noted in the West), an annihilation of the language, religion and culture of Muslim Uighurs has proceeded systematically. About a million people have been sent to “re-education camps,” where they have been forced to denounce their religion and to swear fealty to the Communist Party of China.

When The New York Times published 400 pages of internal government documents on the rationale and techniques of this culturecide, an irate Beijing flatly denied the existence of the camps. But it did not (it could not) claim that the documents were inauthentic. It announced that the “trainees” in its re-education centers had all “graduated.” But the following facts were not announced: the number of graduates, where they are now living and whether they have been reunited with family.

I feel a personal bond with that distant, rustic Xinjiang, because I lived there from the early 1960s until 1977 with my father, the poet Ai Qing, who was banished there for nearly 20 years. He had expressed himself too freely through his poetry.

Westerners may think of Xinjiang as a distant and mysterious place, but in some ways it is not very exotic. Multinational corporations including Volkswagen, Siemens, Unilever and Nestlé have factories there. Supply chains for Muji and Uniqlo depend on Xinjiang, and companies such as H & M, Esprit and Adidas use Xinjiang cotton. We might ask: What is it about this remote place, to which the emperors of old banished criminals in lieu of sending them to prison, that makes it so attractive?

Might a “culturally different” nonwhite labor force play a role? People in no need of control because a harsh Communist government is already doing that work? In Xinjiang, as elsewhere in China, bosses from East and West have exchanged benefits, formed common interests and have even come to share some values. The chief executive of Volkswagen, which leads China in car sales, was recently asked for the company’s comment on the concentration camps in Xinjiang. He answered that VW knew nothing of such things, but the recent Xinjiang papers show otherwise. VW not only knew of the camps but signaled its readiness to go along. International diplomacy has facilitated the partnering of foreign business and Chinese Communism, and the German government has done especially well in that role.

We need to remember that extraction of profit from slave labor is not new to Germany. The Nazis used corvée labor. The main difference today is that the extraction is happening in distant countries. The scale, if anything, is larger. VW builds its cars in China, including the Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Bentley and Lamborghini brands under its umbrella. It has shown that it sees the future of German industry to be in China. Piggybacking on “cultural difference” is still viable there.

China and Russia have shown how legacies of Communist authoritarianism can combine with predatory capitalism to build new political structures of daunting power. The world’s democracies have not figured out what to do about this even as they sense themselves falling behind or, worse, beginning to fit in. Traditional democratic values have begun to slip away. Economic and political trends reach beyond national borders, seem large and unstoppable, and are destroying values and ideals that human societies have evolved over centuries.

I am well aware that the word “Nazi” is taboo in Germany, but when I used it with the casino clerk, I meant it not as an expletive but as a general analytic term: A culture asserts its superiority, an ethnicity its purity, and the horde below is not only different but inferior, in need of being guided and, if necessary, ruled by force. Hence slavery is justified. Hence it is all right that hundreds of thousands of people are pulled from their homes. Rulers and slave masters get halos.

In the 1930s and 1940s this was called Nazism. Today in Germany, the taboo on the term is electric — stronger by far than Ah Q’s rejection of “scabies.” Could German supersensitivity be rooted in awareness, deep down, that the idea does remain alive?

The great challenge facing German and other Western governments is whether they can find a way to exit the carnival of profit making with their moral integrity intact. So far we have seen little on this score other than craven diffidence. The crux of the matter is not ignorance of the moral alternatives but a failure of will. Pursue greed? Do what is right? We shyly select the former. When Western governments come to realize that liberal democracy itself is at stake, this balance might tip the other way.

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.

Artist Ai Weiwei Talks Refugees and Art | Time.com

Worth reading:

The Chinese artist and activist is taking on migration issues and the rise of nationalism with a documentary and his biggest public art project to date

Your exhibition in New York City is called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” What’s it about?

Before the Berlin Wall collapsed, about 11 nations had border [walls] and fences. Now it’s jumped to 70, so you have seen the tendency to exclude and to defend. New York is a city that is made of immigrants. This is not a normal kind of public art; it uses the city as a ready-made and develops projects through the city’s boroughs, especially the immigrant areas, using bus shelters and subway stops.

Some people support President Trump’s wall because they’re worried about being overwhelmed by people from other countries. What would you say to them?

There’s a lot of talk about the potential danger. It’s saying, “We are better than them. They are the danger. They are the problem.” It’s trying not to recognize humanity as one. It’s against the ideology that we’re all created equal, and it’s a violation of our understanding of human rights and human dignity, and it’s just such a backward movement.

How do you walk the line between making art that connects as art, and art that connects as a political statement?

First, I’m an artist. Absolutely, my art is with me in all my activities. My defense of human rights or freedom of speech is really related to the very essential core of the art practice.

There’s a discussion going on about Confederate statues in the U.S. Do you think they should be removed?

I support the freedom of speech. I think that is what we have to defend, and even though those statues may not be pleasant, they still reflect where we come from. If you see what happens in China, the party constantly changes reality and history to its own favor, which really establishes a totally tyrannical control.

You lived in the U.S. for a little while as an art student in the ’80s. Were you in the country legally?

Nobody ever asked me that question. I came to the U.S. as a student. But I dropped out of school and so I became an illegal alien in New York City for years. Nobody ever checked–not even when I brought a lot of trouble to the police, when we had the [Tompkins Square Park] riots.

Why did you pull back on social media?

I grew up in a society in which no individual voice can be heard, whether you are a President or company leader or poet. So when social media provided me such a possibility, I got absolutely lost in it. I was kind of completely wild, and I spent, like, 24 hours a day [with it]. It was just never enough. After so much argument about those very essential values, I lost my voice. It’s just like a singer lost his voice because I repeatedly talked about those big issues. And then one day I had a chance to develop artworks.

You paid a price for your father’s work as a poet when he was exiled. How do you feel about your son in that context?

I was born while my father was being purged, and I grew up in this exiled condition; he cleaned public toilets in a very remote area. And then for 30 years, he was forbidden to write anything. But he is today the most patriotic poet, loves his nation, his people and the fight for the independence of the nation. At the time I was arrested, my son was only 2½. When I went into detention, the only thing I felt sorry about is I thought I was going to be sentenced to over 10 years. So my son’s condition really made me become much softer. I have to protect his safety, have to send him to Germany to a safe ground and also I have to take this exile path with him.

Source: Artist Ai Weiwei Talks Refugees and Art | Time.com

Shepard Fairey and Ai Weiwei On Using Art To Fight President Trump

Always find Ai Weisei’s art and activism of interest, and the role art can play in debate:

Among the colorful poster art from the Women’s March protests, you may have seen the red-white-and-blue face of a Muslim-American woman wearing an American flag hijab–one of a series of inauguration-inspired “We the People” images by graphic artist Shepard Fairey, he of the Obama “Hope” poster fame.

Commissioned by the non-profit Amplifier Foundation, Fairey’s “We the People” posters were alluring visual representations of the resistance movement: a group of diverse people pushing back against the Trump administration’s fearmongering and racism.

Like most of his work, the posters were sold on his “Obey Giant” company website for $100 (some $900,000 proceeds were donated to the ACLU), though many of the artist’s original works have fetched upwards of $70,000 at auction.

Today, Fairey has launched a series of limited-edition skateboards in response to Trump’s first 100 days as president. Collaborating with the Skateroom, a San Francisco-based contemporary art brand, Fairey has turned his “No Future” artwork into a kind of skateboard triptych.

The Skateroom has also released three skate decks by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, showing Ai flashing his middle finger at the White House. The black-and-white “fuck you” to the Trump administration is part of a series of images of Ai flipping off various buildings and landmarks around the world.

Ai Weiwei, who was not available for an interview, said in a statement about the collaboration: “My favorite word is ‘act’. I am partnering with the Skateroom for that very reason.”

Proceeds from Ai’s collaboration will go to Bridging Peoples, a non-profit charity in Turkey dedicated to combatting all forms of discrimination, and B’Tselem, an organization supporting human rights in Israeli-occupied territories.

“During the filming of Human Flow, my documentary on the global refugee condition, I had the opportunity to speak with individuals from both B’Tselem and the Bridging Peoples Association in Turkey,” Ai said. “What these two organizations do is very valuable to society, both in fighting against injustice and in helping those that are unfortunate.”

In a conversation over email, Fairey spoke with the Daily Beast about the meaning of “No Future,” the urgency to create art in the Trump era, and the artists calling for censorship of Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” painting at this year’s Whitney Biennial.

DB: When did you first conceive “No Future” and what is the message you are trying to convey with this work? Is it an extension of your drive to “question everything”?

SF: The piece does fall within my philosophy of questioning everything, but there are more specific reasons for the image and text. I’m a big fan of wordplay and language in general, so a few of the ideas in the piece began percolating early in Trump’s bid for the presidency.

Inspired by lyrics from the Sex Pistols (“No Future”) and the hubris of the early European inhabitants of what would become the United States that led to their belief that it was God’s will for them to conquer ocean to ocean, I think that what led largely to Trump’s election was the manifestation of the too-common mindset that facts don’t matter; in other words, “manifest destiny”—the truth will not penetrate the barriers of our ideology if the truth doesn’t sit well with our predispositions.

I come from punk rock so the Sex Pistols and their song “God Save the Queen” with the refrain “No Future” was a big protest anthem for me growing up. However, unlike the nihilism of “God Save the Queen” my use of “No Future” employs more of a bait and switch tactic. A lot of people felt defeated and hopeless by Trump’s election, but I feel his election should energize people to resist apathy, ignorance, sexism, xenophobia, and racism.

Source: Shepard Fairey and Ai Weiwei On Using Art To Fight President Trump

Why Fans Are Sending the Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Boxes of Legos – The Atlantic

Installation and performance art combined, along with politics:

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist known worldwide for his politically charged art installations, has long butted heads with his country’s government over its censorship policies and human-rights violations. Now, he’s facing resistance of a different kind. The Danish toy company Lego refused to send the artist its plastic bricks to use in a project for the National Gallery of Victoria, explaining that it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.”

In an Instagram post on Friday, Ai announced the company’s rejection of his request, and suggested that it’s related to the recently announced opening of a new Legoland in Shanghai. In subsequent posts, he blasted the company’s decision and questioned their ethics: “Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination,” he wrote. Commenters on his posts expressed disdain for Lego (“Will never see Lego the same way again after their decision,” said one), and others suggested that Ai’s supporters send him all the bricks he needs.

The idea took off: Offers from fans seeking to donate Legos to Ai have been pouring in on Twitter since, and the company is receiving backlash for inadvertently making a political statement in their refusal to sell to the artist.

Source: Why Fans Are Sending the Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Boxes of Legos – The Atlantic

After 600 Days of ‘With Flowers,’ Ai Weiwei Has His Passport Back

As a fan of Ai Weiwei’s work, enjoyed this profile and the news that he has his passport back:

On Wednesday morning, as he has every day for the past year and a half, Ai Weiwei placed a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle that stands outside his studio in Beijing. The selection included carnations and baby’s breath. The day before, he’d picked sunflowers. He started the week with lilies.

For more than a year and a half, China’s infamous dissident artist has arranged his blooms in a daily demonstration against the confiscation of his passport. Titled With Flowers, the work is part-protest, part-performance art. But no longer: After four years, the artist announced via Instagram on Wednesday that the Chinese government had returned his passport. Since 2011, after Ai was arrested on charges of tax evasion, jailed for 81 days, and then released, the government had kept it confiscated, and refused him any other travel papers.

With Flowers endured for about 600 days. Ai started the performance on November 13, 2013, more than two years into his confinement. The demonstration serves as an extraordinary record of his confinement: He placed the flowers outside the aquamarine door at 258 Caochangdi, home to his art studio as well as his design and architecture firm, FAKE Design. They were mighty arrangements, rarely modest, all formally documented on Flickr. Ai is both active and savvy on social media (which is part of what prompted his trouble with the authorities), and his flowers traveled far beyond the plastic basket on his black Giant bike via posts on Flickr, Instagram, and Twitter.

After 600 Days of ‘With Flowers,’ Ai Weiwei Has His Passport Back – The Atlantic.