Ai Weiwei: China's Caged Artist Trying To Get To Alcatraz

Ai Weiwei: China's Caged Artist Trying To Get To Alcatraz
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING — Three years after his imprisonment, still deprived of his passport and shut off in a bubble of official Chinese silence, Ai Weiwei, 57, neverthless appears ubiquitous everywhere else on the planet.

The Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall in Berlin devoted a huge retrospective entitled “Evidences” from April to July. His last documentary, Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50 (November 2013), about the absurd legal battle that followed his liberation, was played at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and at another festival in Hong Kong in March.

In June 2013, he was remotely part of a cinema jury in Sweden, watching the films online. To occupy his empty seat, he was depicted as a Ming chair that he personally customized: a transversal bar prevents sitting in the chair. The former political prisoner regularly transmits video messages to the organizers of his exhibitions abroad, explaining that the government never gave him back his passport and that he never got any explanation.

Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days in 2011 and questioned repeatedly by authorities. His prison guards told him that he was going to stay 10 years inside. Liberated with the condition that he was banned from traveling outside the country, Weiwei transformed this alienation into a leitmotiv in the representation of his perpetual confrontation with a Kafkaesque system that’s in turns brutal and apathetic, meticulous and muddled, in its efforts to clip his wings.

Since November 30, he regularly leaves a bunch of flowers in the basket of a locked-up bike in front of the number 258 of Caochangdi (pronounce: “tsaotchangdi”), the artistic area of Beijing where he designed most of the buildings. Then, he takes a picture and puts it on Twitter or Instagram. He says he will keep on doing this until he gets his passport back.

Photo: Ai Weiwei

“A few times, I’ve been asked to remove the flowers on the bike. The way I react to that depends of the way they ask. If they are rude, I answer firmly. The last time my answer was that I will continue no matter what,” he tells us at Fake Studio, his workshop in a recent morning.

Escape to Alcatraz?

He is wearing his Alcatraz uniform, a gift from the infamous former American prison, where he will unveil exclusive works of art in September in an unprecedented exhibition.

After his liberation in June 2011, Ai Weiwei signed a commitment in which he promised not to criticize the government, detail his detention or give any interviews. Nowadays, he says that he signed this document under distress, and that such a piece of paper has therefore no legal standing.

Who would have thought that, at the 2013 Venice Biennale, he would dare to show a detailed, realistic 3D reconstruction of various life scenes in jail? Or to sing a heavy-metal version of his ordeal in a music video?

“When it comes to doing something very big and serious, strangely, they keep quiet and don’t know what to do," he explains. "In reality, it’s often like that in China."

Still, the artivist has to deal regularly with the authorities. In 2012, tired of the cameras that were constantly spying him, Ai Weiwei placed cameras at his place to post his daily life online. The international buzz was such that he accepted to remove the cameras when the police asked him to – but the message had already spread.

The same year his documentary Ai Weiwei’s Appeal was to be released in Hong Kong, authorities came to remove the film: “The problem is that they always arrive too late! I told them they should have warned me earlier, because if I was going to remove the film, it would have an even bigger impact! That would be worse for them! In fact, they are not really trying to block me; they have to show they obey. What matters to them is that I don’t participate in political discussions."

He continues, "They tell me: ‘You have a lot of influence, you are famous, others can criticize but you can’t." Actually, I don’t want to criticize for the sake of criticizing. It can become repetitive. Of course, it is my responsibility to give my opinion on serious issues. But there are many other things I would like to do, like traveling with my son. Or settle down and write...”

Star silence

Ai Weiwei’s omnipresence abroad is proportional to his invisibility in his own country. Censors prohibit the media from mentioning his name, he cannot appear on Chinese social networks and he lives and works in premises where freedom is very fluid, where nothing can be taken for granted.

It is Ai Weiwei’s paradox: the West is his yang, his room for freedom, light and action that seems to be in perpetual expansion. China is his yin, his place of obscurity and isolation where his creative genius can blossom even though his outsider and anti-star status gives him a certain aura in civil society.

Ai Weiwei gives simple explanations for his hyperactivity. He tells us that part of why he has exhibited so many times is that he simply has a lot to say: “Every single one of my activities, of my exhibitions or displays of my works comes from a will to express myself. I am not a politician, I am an artist. I express myself therefore I am.”

His art is fed by communication. He intervenes wherever he can: on foreign social networks with his quick performances and commentaries, illustrated or not, the way only he knows how. Then he intervenes in the only space that is open to him: museums and national galleries.

Another side matters, he says: “Every time I do an exhibition or finish a work, I always tell myself that maybe it is the last time I ever will create something. And it is the opportunity to express as strongly as I can all the things I have to say, to not have any regret.”

He says that he already had this feeling inside him before his detention, but it has grown more intense since. “They tried all forms of pressure on me, they destroyed buildings I built (his studio in Shanghai in 2010), they hit me (in Chengdu in 2009 while he was coming to testify at the trial of an activist). They soiled my reputation by accusing me of having stashed away a huge amount of money from the authorities. They keep on intimidating me, as well as the people I know. I’ve lived all those experiences, this nightmare, for years. There is also what my father went through (the poet Ai Qing persecuted during the Cultural Revolution). Anyway, the person you have in front of you cannot change that. When I communicate with those people, I make the message go viral because I am who I am and I can’t change. I think they have more or less accepted this idea and have given up on trying to change me.”

What Ai Weiwei has lived inspires his performances and installations from the most simple and insignificant in appearance – like the morning bouquet in front of his studio- to the most ambitious ones like the exhibition for Alcatraz in San Francisco.

“It will be about the detention. Necessarily, I will talk about the people deprived of freedom, and the meaning of punishment," he says. "It is true that in my creations, I try to stage my reality. This link with my situation is natural. There is a part of danger in talking about it but this is my determination. Winding up in the spotlight, I became some kind of activist.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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