LONDON – The grim news that Ai Weiwei, perhaps China’s most famous contemporary artist, has been arrested and jailed – his family and friends have not seen or heard from him since – makes me think anew about Ai’s 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, now being exhibited at London’s Tate Modern Gallery.
China’s people, Ai’s installation seems to imply, are like the millions of seeds spread across the Tate’s gargantuan entrance hall. No one cares whether they are humiliated or crushed under foot (as the seeds were allowed to be at the exhibition’s opening). Unfortunately, Ai has become one of the seeds, his freedom crushed by the heel of an inhuman state.
The Chinese official newspaper Global Times denounces Ai as a “maverick,” and mavericks are not tolerated in China. The only way for a Chinese individual to survive is to adopt the grey, anonymous way of the sunflower seed.
According to a short item published by the official Xinhua news agency, Ai has allegedly been involved in so-called “economic crimes,” which could mean practically anything that the Marxist/Maoist minds of the leadership care to dream up. In fact, China’s government has yet to decide whether to prosecute Ai for economic crimes or for being “maverick.” Either way, the outside world must not be allowed to have any idea as to what fate awaits Ai.