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China: Comments on Ai Weiwei's River Crab Banquet

Over the weekend, prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was under house arrest, a move believed to be coming from powerful political figures in Shanghai. Ai had planned to fly to Shanghai to host a goodbye party at his condemned studio on Sunday. Although the authorities say the studio was built illegally, Ai said that the decision to pull it down was political. His campaigns on sensitive human rights issues in China have often angered officials.

While Ai remained confined in Beijing, his planned banquet to serve the river crabs – a satirical reference to official censorship – was nevertheless attended by hundreds of supporters.

Ai Weiwei's Shanghai studio

Online, there was also a storm surrounding Ai Weiwei. It started from the blog Shanghai Monthly, which contains an article asserting that supporters of Ai Weiwei were being manipulated in this show directed by Ai himself. The article, titled AWW, You Are Not Helping, claims that Ai Weiwei would not be surprised by the fact that he was being detained and not be able to attend the party:

我们对此结果毫不吃惊,相信艾未未先生同样不觉意外,因为稍有基本判断力的人都明白,这事先张扬的河蟹盛宴不可能成功。与其说警方的介入是此事件戏剧性的转折点,不如说这是艾未未河蟹剧本的一部分。这是一场行为艺术表演,艾未未早就预估到了事件的发展轨迹,警员的出现甚至所谓的软禁,都不会出乎他的意料;甚至不如说,这就是他想要的。当英国《卫报》或《纽约时报》迅即刊出艾未未被软禁的新闻时,他一定在草场地的寓所内满足了吧。

We are not surprised by the outcome, neither is Ai Weiwei. Any person with common sense should understand that this River Crab Banquet would not be successful. Rather than viewing police interference as the turning point of the event, we should say it is part of Ai Weiwei’s script. This is a piece of action art. Ai Weiwei has predicted the outcome early on. For Ai, the presence of the police and the house arrest are not entirely unpredictable, perhaps these are what he wants. When the Guardian and The New York Times reported news of his house arrest, Ai must be quietly satisfied.

如果艾未未先生真的想请大家吃一万只河蟹,“庆祝”他的马陆工作室拆迁的话——我们甚至承认,这是一种平和的、富有幽默感的对抗——那么他就不该如此高调地将盛宴消息提前多日公诸于众,让那些“国际媒体”抱着看好戏的心态等待新闻。他本该利用艺术家的想像力,想出一个更有创造性的方法(或随便什么方法)使这场盛宴成为可能。我们无意质疑艾未未先生的初衷,我们同样不否认“螳臂当车”或者“堂吉诃德斗风车”的勇气;但是要知道,本事件中牵扯到的绝不仅仅是一只手臂或一个人,在这个基于个人选择的事件里还牵扯到千百位民众。——这恰恰是我们不喜欢艾未未的最重要的理由:在我们看来,艾未未先生导演整个河蟹事件的手法,与导演一场团体操无异。每个报名参加河蟹盛宴的人,都是一枚棋子、或一颗瓜子。他们成为了物,成为了团体操的千百分之一。

If Ai Weiwei really wants to serve ten thousand river crabs to supporters, to ‘celebrate’ the demolition of his arts studio – we even admit that this is a peaceful and harmonious protest – then he should not announce this banquet in such a high profile to the public so early on, and let the ‘international media’ to wait for it to happen. He should have used his artistic imagination and think of a way so that the banquet is possible. We have no intention to question Ai’s motivations, we are also not denying his Don Quixote spirit. However, we need to realize that this incident is not involving only one person, but hundreds of people – this is exactly the reason we don’t like Ai Weiwei: Mr. Ai is directing the whole River Crab incident, which is no different from a mass gymnastics. Everyone who decides to attend the banquet has become a chess [of Mr. Ai], a ‘thing’, or a mere part of the mass gymnastics.

On Bullogger, where the article is re-posted, commentator 今天天气哈哈哈 thinks that Ai Weiwei is just a man who thinks too highly of himself:

今天天气哈哈哈 [222.152.31.*] @ 2010-11-8 16:29:14:
艾未未,也是一很自以为是的人,这种人很难顾及其他人的感受
自我优越感很强
但我还是要说,他怎么样是他的自由
你们别陪他发神经就完了
何必呢?中国的事,是艾未未们改变不了的

Ai Weiwei is a man who thinks too much of himself. This kind of man will not think about others’ feelings.
He thinks of himself highly.
But I have to add, this is his freedom.
Just don’t be crazy with him.
For Ai Weiwei cannot change China.

However, commentator idealle thinks that the River Crab Banquet is a superb piece of action arts:

idealle[74.82.178.*] @ 2010-11-8 19:55:25:
这是艾未未迄今最好的作品,虽然他其它的作品都免不了让我觉得有矫情的成份,但是这个作品打动了我,让我觉得恰到好处,非常艺术,直击灵魂的黑色幽默。
一个行为艺术作品,当然需要有设计,当然需要有预见性,当然需要引发不可预测的结果。甚至包括上面这篇文章,也是这个行为艺术作品的一部分。
一颗石子,丢入一潭死水,欣赏它激起的涟漪,揣测水潭的深度,和浑浊度,艾未未成功地扮演了一颗石子的角色。

This is Ai’s best piece of art so far. Although I feel that his other pieces are hypocritical, this one has moved me. I think that it is a sort of black humor, very artistic and spot on.
As a piece of action art, it, of course, needs to be planned. It also needs to have unpredictable consequences. In fact, the article above also plays a part in this piece of art.
Ai Weiwei is like a piece of stone, thrown into the dead water, testing its depth and turbidity, and arousing ripples throughout.

Commentator 麦克 to the original post ponders about the wider significance of Ai’s action art:

艾未未从未否认过这也是一种艺术抗争的一种方式,同样参加的人也知道及认可这样一种方式,人们的参与是发自自愿并清楚知道可能的后果。中国人需要发出自己的声音。他不是幕后策划,这是幕前策划,这不是阴谋,这是堂堂正正的阳谋!
我尊重你不喜欢艾未未,我个人也未必喜欢他做的每一件事,可是我喜欢他在为我们每一个人呐喊的行为!无论你是否体制内外的五毛,他的行为也在也在为你呐喊。

Ai Weiwei has never denied that this is a kind of opposition through artistic expressions. Similarly, people who participated in it approved of this method of expression. Their participation was entirely voluntary, and they knew about the consequences. Chinese people need to make their voices heard. Ai Weiwei is planning forefront, not behind the scene; this is an open conspiracy, not a plot!
I respect your right of disliking Ai Weiwei. Also, I do not like everything Ai Weiwei did. But I like him for shouting out on behalf of every one of us! Whether you are in or out of the establishment, he is voicing out for all of us.

Rebuking the points made in AWW, You Are Not Helping, blogger Liu Hanyu explained why he likes Ai Weiwei:

最直接的理由是,我认为艾未未一直在尽力做的事情莫过于帮助越来越多的人摆脱恐惧。
在许多描述文革历史的作品以及名著《1984》中,我们总可以感觉到一种迫入心扉的恐惧。这些恐惧来自于自儿时起的奴化教育,来自于白色的政治气息,来自于无处不在的监视设备与打小报告者,来自于各种匪夷所思的罪名。

The most direct reason is this: I think Ai Weiwei is always trying his best to help more and more people to escape from fear. In many books about the Cultural Revolution and classics such as 1984, we can always feel the fear forcing into our hearts. This fear comes from enslaving education, from an atmosphere of white terror, from the Big Brother and censors all over the place, and from bizarre criminal charges which could be forced onto us.

“上海一月”的作者认为,艾未未是在鼓动这些民众来提高自己的知名度,“每个报名参加河蟹盛宴的人,都是一枚棋子、或一颗瓜子。他们成为了物,成为了团体操的千百分之一。” 这种论调与前一段官媒评判世界各国对和平奖的立场的言论十分地相似,阴谋论患者总是会把自己的阴暗内心投射到别人身上,艾未未也许算不得君子,但是像该作者这样能总是以这样龌龊的想法去揣度别人的人,绝不辜负“小人”的称谓。而艾未未,敢于在严打“非法集会”的今天,如此大张旗鼓地举行反河蟹的宴会,值得每一匹草泥马尊敬。

The authors of ‘Shanghai Monthly’ think that Ai is manipulating his supporters to sustain his popularity. ‘Everyone who decides to attend the banquet has become a chess [of Mr. Ai], a ‘thing’, or a mere part of the mass gymnastics.’ This tone is very similar to official criticisms on the stance of foreign countries on the Nobel Peace Prize. Conspiracy theorists always project their own dark shadows on other people. Ai Weiwei may not be a gentleman, but the authors, by assuming that other people think like themselves, qualifies as ‘villains’. As for Ai, just by the fact that he dares to organize this ‘illegal’ River Crab Banquet, he deserves the respect of every Grass-Mud Horse.

2 comments

  • Read the full coverage of the ‘canceled’ party at Ai’s with 10,000 crabs here http://artradarjournal.com/2010/11/09/ai-weiweis-studio-party-cancelled-art-radar-was-there/. Harmony!

  • Charles Liu

    Andy, please read Caijin’s 11/17 story on the studio demolition titled “艾未未工作室被拆记-《财经网》” for what really happened:

    – Ai was approached not by shanghai City, but Jiadin District official Sun Jiwei about the studio in Malu. It’s built on village collective land.

    – Neither the District nor township official arranged for building permit. When Shanghai National Land Management Bureau discovered the illegal building, Ai was notified of the lack of permit in July 2010 under Article 34 Section 1 of Land Mangement law.

    (Here’s the relevant section: “”个人进行建设,需要使用土地的,必须依法申请使用国有土地…乡(镇)村公共设施和公益事业建设经依法批准使用农民集体所有的土地的除外”.)

    – Efforts were made to save the building according to public project exemtion in aforementioned section. Jiadin District offered 50% more compensation in exchange to have building donated to the village collective, but Ai refused.

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