CHINA: Dissident artist accepts German professorship

Prominent Chinese artist and rights activist Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium in Beijing, is unlikely to take up the guest professorship offered by Berlin University of the Arts before next year, even though he has been released from detention in China.

"Ai accepted the professorship just over a week ago and we are now waiting for him to get the chance to travel, to get in touch with us personally and discuss when he can start here. We will keep the post open till he can start," said Claudia Assmann, spokesperson for the German university.

"Of course it is a matter of his own circumstances, which is not within his control."

After being released from three-months' detention in Beijing on 22 June, the burly Ai has been banned from leaving the country for a year and his passport has been confiscated by the authorities. Nor can he give media interviews. He was arrested prior to boarding a plane to Hong Kong in April, and detained on grounds of tax evasion, a charge he has strongly denied.

The professorship, offered in April while Ai was still in detention, will be funded by the Einstein Foundation in Berlin. "It was offered for artistic reasons. We were discussing it [the professorship] long before Ai was detained. We started inviting him to our university and started the process of offering a professorship in December 2010.

"It is because he is a well-known artist whom we consider would be fantastic to work with our students. But things began to move very fast this year, and became very political," Assmann told University World News. "Once he was arrested in China there was a strong will to move swiftly with granting the professorship."

It took just four months to process the offer with the Einstein Foundation, which Assmann said was extremely quick. "When he takes up the position he will be required to work with our students and integrate his own work within our university structure, as is the case with all our professors."

Berlin University of the Arts, which has more than 4,000 students - one fifth of them from overseas - said its strong belief in "artistic freedom and freedom for artists", was behind its decision.

At the time the offer was made university officials were unsure Ai had even received the offer, until intermediaries responded and the offer was accepted this month.

Ai has strong ties with Germany and had laid plans since late last year to buy a studio in Berlin, in addition to his studio in China, before the university made its offer. "I want to also be in a position to carry out my daily work on my art and my exhibitions in Germany," he told the local newspaper the Berliner Zeitung in March.

Although the Chinese authorities tore down his newly built studio in Shanghai in January, he did not see his Berlin venture as fleeing China, but as opening an alternative venue in the culturally vibrant German city. "For my art I have been commuting for a while between Europe and China," he said.

The German capital has a large artist community and a relatively low living cost, he reportedly said. "Most of my activities are in Europe. It is difficult to show off my works in China; some of the happenings in China have made people frustrated. I need to find another base to continue my work."

The outspoken Ai, 54, has not refrained from taking on sensitive issues. He led a team of volunteers in identifying more than 5,000 school children who died when their schools collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Ai kept up a daily routine of putting on his Twitter feed every day at the stroke of midnight the name of the victim born on that particular day.

His father, prominent poet Ai Qing, was among the numerous intellectuals persecuted during the Anti-Rightists Movement in the late 1950s. The Ai family was banished to remote Xinjiang, where for more than a decade Ai Qing was assigned to clean public toilets.

"It was physically exhausting for him. Rural toilets were very dirty. He could not take any rest during work because if he did, the amount of cleaning to be done would only double. What happened to him made me realise the deplorable state of human nature. My father was a very nice person, but how could people treat him like that, vilifying and beating him?" recalled Ai.

"The good sides of human nature could be exemplified under a good system, but under a bad system, you can do nothing about human wickedness; you won't intervene because if you do, you may suffer yourself. Having seen my father's case, I don't want to see the same thing happening again to later generations."

The Ai family was allowed back to Beijing at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Under the influence of his father's friends, Ai began to learn to draw. In 1978, he joined the Beijing Film Academy but, without completing his studies, he left for the US in 1981 in "self-imposed exile".

He did whatever jobs came his way to support himself then enrolled in an art school, but soon left to experiment with his own paintings, later sculptural installations, furniture and architecture. The freewheeling, vibrant art scene in the US fuelled his passion for art, he said.

In 1993, he returned to Beijing to be with his ailing father. As China's art scene was slowly recovering from heavy suppression in the wake of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, Ai soon began to gain international attention and acclaim for his ground-breaking projects.

Last October, Ai was also honoured in the German city of Kassel with a citizenship award.
In March 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in politics and sociology by the University of Ghent in Belgium, where Ai has exhibited his art. In April the rector of Ghent Unviersity Paul van Cauwenberge voiced concern about the then-detained dissident.

* Linda Yeung interviewed Ai Weiwei for her just-released book China Voices on prominent liberal Chinese intellectuals.

Since Ai Weiwei has been made a citizen of Kassel (assuming this is not just for show) he is effectively a German citizen. So Germany can demand his extradition from China and welcome him to Germany, at least in principle.

Dilip G Banhatti