Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, talked Thursday afternoon to KCRW's "To The Point" program about artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who is being held by Chinese authorities on charges of "economic crimes."
"It is a perfect storm," Chiu told host Warren Olney. "It has come at a time when Ai Weiwei has been particularly outspoken against the government in his blogs and tweets, and he was preparing to leave the country for various exhibitions and plans to set up a studio in Europe."
Ai, 53, was taken into custody over the weekend at a Beijing airport as he tried to board an airplane headed to Hong Kong. He is perhaps China's most famous living artist, and played a role in the design of the iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium used in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He is also a vocal critic of the Chinese government.
"He made some references to the Jasmine Revolution just before he left," Chiu continued. "The government, as we now know, is in the process of a crackdown on a number of intellectuals. ...
"I think we are really seeing what has become a history of relaxation of (restrictions on) certain liberties — and artists are at the forefront of that — and then often it is followed by a crackdown. So for Ai Weiwei I think it has been something of a perfect storm."
Chiu said Ai has a history of being the "bad boy" of the Chinese art world.
"I first met him in the late 1990s when he had returned from living in New York," Chiu said. "He had played something of a mentor to performance artists who were living on the outskirts of Beijing who had formed themselves into, and called themselves, Beijing’s 'East Village' in reference to New York’s East Village of the 1980s. And, he had played this kind of mentorship role for a whole younger generation of artists.
"His works themselves — I don’t think you would ever categorize them as being overtly political. I think we have to remember that since 2008 he's really taken on the role of political activist, as well as being an artist and playing many other creative roles in China."
Chiu's interview runs 6 minutes, 15 seconds, and you can listen to it in its entirety below. "To the Point" is a nationally syndicated public affairs radio program co-produced by KCRW in Santa Monica, California and Public Radio International.
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