A sculptor, architect, installation artist, and filmmaker, Weiwei was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2011. He helped conceive the design of the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his work has been exhibited in more than a dozen countries.
Weiwei was detained April 3 by Chinese police at the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong. According to Chinese authorities he was arrested for tax evasion, but many believe he was actually arrested for the political nature of his work. He was release June 22 after an enormous international outcry over his arrest, but his freedom is still limited. The artist is prohibited from speaking to the press for a year, and according to Walker curator Olga Viso his communications with foreigners is restricted.
"It's a cause of alarm when artists around the world are denied the right to create," Viso says. Weiwei is not the only artist to be censored or repressed recently. Viso points out that in April Juliano Mer Khamis, the Israeli-Arab actor, activist, and founder of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, and who also starred in Julian Schnabel's film Miral, was shot dead in his car. In Iran, filmmaker Jafar Panahi--whose work the Walker shared in the mid-'90s--is currently forbidden to create films and is under house arrest.
"We don't believe that any artistic voice anywhere should be silenced," Viso says. "The museum community is united on that front. We should speak on the behalf of artists." Viso points out that it is critical to realize that censorship is not only something that happens in other societies. For example, just this year the Smithsonian censored David Wojnarowicz's film Fire in my Belly because of criticisms from religious groups (the Walker subsequently screened the film).
Local artist Broc Blegen, who has been working with the Walker in developing the "1,001 Chairs" event, states in an email that in addition to prominent examples of censorship like that of Weiwei, it is also important to highlight the amount of self-censorship that occurs in response to repressive countries and organizations. "Many artists around the world have to be very careful about what they do, make, or say," Blegen says, "and this might prevent some of the most important art from being made in the first place--even before it can be censored by someone else!"
Even in Minnesota, Blegen says, self-censorship can occur when artists are worried about being accepted for a grant or impressing a curator or jury. "It's important that we strive to create the conditions that may support truly critical and challenging artwork, and this is something that even Minnesota needs to improve upon."
Blegen hopes that the event will remind us all of how much art matters. "Ai Weiwei has long been an inspiration to me as an artist, especially in his ability to work across disciplines and cultural boundaries to make beautiful yet politically incisive work, and I think this will be a good community-based event that reminds us of the importance of our freedom of speech," he says.
For the event, the Walker will recreate Weiwei's Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs which was first presented in Kassel, Germany in 2007. For the original show Weiwei arranged 1,001 late Ming and Quing Dynasty wooden chairs throughout the exhibition and recruited via internet 1,001 Chinese citizens to volunteer to live in Kassel for the length of the show.
In April, in response to Weiwei's arrest, a New York-based organization called Creative Time helped organize a sit-in where protesters brought chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world.
For the Walker Open Field event, guests are invited to bring a chair (or chairs) of any type to the Walker lawn on Tuesday, July 12. The culminating event will take place at 6 p.m. when Olga Viso will make brief remarks. Visitors can collect their chairs between 6:15 and 8 p.m. and unclaimed chairs will be donated to charity.
Viso says the event is inspired by Weiwei's work, but is also about how his work inspires collective action. "Those voices and actions, the appeal for freedom and democracy, do make a difference," Viso says.