Ai Weiwei finds art censorship rallied by Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong ‘extremely Nazi’
Vetting art through an angle of extreme politicization is an extremely Nazi behavior, said Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose works have been the center of a recent controversy in Hong Kong.
“Study of Perspective — Tiananmen Square” is part of a series Ai created in 1997, where he raised a middle finger at various institutions that are symbols of authority and power, including the White House and the Parliament Building in Bern.
They were among a huge collection of Chinese contemporary artworks donated to the M+ art museum in 2012 by Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China, who had considered Hong Kong the best home for them. But as the museum of visual culture is set to open later this year, its artistic freedom has been called into question.
After pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung alleged that Ai’s photographs may undermine national security, Henry Tang, the government official who chairs the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, said the “vulgar” works by the activist artist would not be displayed at the opening exhibition.
The Chinese government is encouraging the witch-hunting behaviors of loyalists to reinforce the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” Ai told Apple Daily. So it is normal to see sycophants doing extreme acts to express their loyalty towards Beijing. But Yung’s remarks not only revealed her ignorance in art, but also her ineptness as a politician. “Vetting art through an angle of extreme politicization is an extremely Nazi behavior. In the end, she will be judged by history,” said Ai.
The 63-year-old was against Sigg’s initial decision to donate the collection to national museums in Beijing and Shanghai. “In China, a country with an extensive system of censorship, your donation will merely disappear,” Ai told him.
M+ Museum offered an alternative at the time. “Theoretically his donations are still given to China, but under another system, works that are controversial under Chinese politics should be fine in Hong Kong,” said Ai. “It used to be fine.”
The strong reaction to this particular series has caught the artist by surprise. “I did not expect such a casual series of work would become the center of a heated discussion about culture, freedom of expression and the fate of Hong Kong,” said Ai, who felt that equating those photographs as a threat to national security is an exaggeration. “My conclusion is that even a small potato should not underestimate his actions because some day, they may become important.”
Since the saga unraveled early in March, the M+ team has assured Ai in a teleconference that his two large-scale installations, “Whitewash” and “Still Life”, will be displayed at the opening exhibition. “They admitted they are under great pressure, but promised to handle the matter professionally.”
That said, Ai believes it is possible that his other works may also be withdrawn. “The museum is fragile against pressure. If the Hong Kong Chief Executive regards me as a threat to national security and demands my works to be removed, they must do so,” he said.
Whether his artworks can be displayed to the Hong Kong public depends on how much the authorities tighten their grip and how much censorship the citizens will tolerate, said Ai. “The battle over freedom of expression goes both ways.”
He himself is in an ongoing battle to find a platform for his works, as China’s influence stretches across the world.
Cockroach (2020), his documentary on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019, was completed last year, along with another film, Coronation (2020), which documented life in Wuhan, ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic.
“All film festivals were stunned by how in-depth the two films are,” Ai noted. But Venice Film Festival, the Berlinale and the Toronto International Film Festival all rejected them because of the organizers’ ties with the Chinese market. Even streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon were not willing to screen, he added.
Now the two films are displayed on Vimeo, where it can be viewed on payment. “The biggest issue of the censorship system isn’t that I can’t find an audience for my film, but that it discourages independent filmmakers from broaching themes that are deemed sensitive,” Ai said.
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