On September 21, Ai Weiwei left Munich University Hospital, where he had received treatment for a brain hemorrhage. He entered the hospital on September 14, and underwent emergency surgery that night after his condition rapidly deteriorated. Photographic documentation of Ai’s hospitalization ensued, first posted on his Twitter feed and later circulated through online art-world news aggregators. Images of the surgeon, Jörg-Christian Tonn, a camel park near the hospital and an Oktoberfest beer maiden commingle with post-op shots of three thick braids of stitches on Ai’s shaved head—small amusements gesturing to an absurd and unpleasant reality.
A long chain of events led up to Ai’s hospitalization. On March 28, the prominent Chinese writer and activist Tan Zuoren was arrested in his home in Chengdu on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” This came three days after the online publication of the concluding document from his and Xie Yuhui’s investigation into the deaths of more than 5,000 schoolchildren in collapsed classrooms during the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Entitled “Independent Investigative Report by Citizens,” Tan and Xie’s document presented evidence of shoddy school construction and alluded to widespread government malfeasance at the local level. Tan’s arrest in March followed previous police incursions into his home and confiscation of computer disks, papers and materials related to the “5.12 Student Archive,” the working title for his investigation. Such intrusions caused the activist team to conclude the investigation two months prior to their originally proposed May 2009 end date.
Ai agreed to testify at the trial at the suggestion of Tan’s lawyer, who believed that the artist’s findings from the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project—instigated after government promises of an official investigation failed to materialize (reported in AAP 64 and 65)—would aid in Tan’s defense. The project, a coordinated effort involving more than 60 volunteer researchers to collect the names of the deceased children, closely paralleled Tan’s efforts. Collaborators on the project have reported repeated police harassment and detentions by local authorities. Witnesses for the defense, including Ai, were ultimately unable to testify at Tan’s trial at the Intermediate People’s Court in Chengdu on August 12; they were interrupted at their homes in the early hours before the trial by local police intent on preventing their testimony. At 3 am that day, Ai was reportedly beaten by police in his Chengdu hotel room. Six other scheduled witnesses and ten Chinese volunteers affiliated with the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project attending the trial were also temporarily detained. Local police held television reporters from Hong Kong’s Now TV for more than seven hours, searching their luggage and personal effects. Numerous members of Tan’s family were barred from the courtroom. At press time, a verdict had yet to be issued on Tan’s case, a full two months after the trial and seven months after his initial arrest.
Ai remained in Beijing for three weeks after the beating in Chengdu before flying to Munich on September 13. While in Beijing, he repeatedly complained of dizziness and headaches, but attributed these symptoms to exhaustion. The dizziness became acute after arrival in Munich, where Ai was to install his solo exhibition “So Sorry” at the city’s venerable Haus der Kunst, a show in which artworks related to the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project have a prominent place. Constructed for the exhibition, Remembering (2009) decorates the facade of the museum with 9,000 children’s school bags that form the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” Inside the museum, blog entries are mounted on panels above which hangs an image, taken by Ai on August 11, of uniformed police outside his hotel room in Chengdu. The grainy photograph depicts Ai smiling wryly as an officer looks on uncomfortably.
The political maelstrom surrounding Tan’s trial and reports of widespread police thuggery meant that rumors of Ai’s condition and the potential cause of the cranial trauma spread quickly over the Internet in the days following the artist’s hospitalization. Images of the bedridden artist, largely provided via Ai’s Twitter feed, incited rampant media speculation. A September 21 news conference following his discharge from the hospital did much to clarify inaccuracies and seemed to confirm the causal relationship between the August 12 beating, subsequent head trauma and September 14 surgery. In China, the case is still under review by the authorities, but formal resolution on the Mainland appears unlikely in the near future.
Ironically, the proliferation of images of Ai’s hospitalization may be linked to the collaborative blogging project he undertook with the Haus der Kunst in conjunction with “So Sorry.” For the project, the artist blogged for the first time in English, documenting the progress of the installation and his time in Munich. This gesture was an important historical nod to blogging’s centrality within Ai’s artistic practice, but also created an outlet through which images of the ailing artist proliferated.
By September 30, Ai had supplanted words for images on his Haus der Kunst blog [http://aiweiwei.blog.hausderkunst.de]. He posted these remarks in advance of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on October 1: “After 60 years of struggle, we come back to the ground zero. We still have to fight for essential values of life and live in dangerous conditions, which threaten citizens’ lives if you demand freedom. If one sentence can make a conclusion of these 60 years on the first of october that will be: 60 years of shame and ignorance.”Ai’s hospitalization falls against broader Sino-German cultural tensions. Quarrels between the Frankfurt Book Fair (the world’s largest, taking place October 14–18) and this year’s Guest of Honor country, China, have been ongoing since mid-September. The Chinese delegation walked out of a pre-fair panel discussion on September 12 because it included writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling, whose books are banned in China. In the spirit of “democracy in action,” according to a statement from fair director Juergen Boos, the fair has no plans to remove potentially controversial figures, including an emissary from the Dalai Lama, exiled Nobel Prize winner for Literature Gao Xingjian and Ai Weiwei, from its event schedule.