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Chinese Artist and Activist Ai Weiwei Released on Bail

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ai Weiwei's 'Zodiac Heads' at the Plaza Hotel. Ai Weiwei's "Zodiac Heads" at the Plaza Hotel. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC/WNYC)

The controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released on bail on Wednesday after he confessed to tax evasion. The Chinese State Media news agency reported that the artist's good attitude, willingness to pay his allegedly evaded taxes and poor health were factors in his release.

On Thursday at noon, Ai supporters had planned to hold a vigil for the Chinese artist and activist who was detained on April 3. Now they don't know if they will hold their hour-long rally, “Stand With Ai Weiwei,” in front of Ai's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" at the Plaza Hotel fountain at 59th St. and 5th Ave.

“We want to focus on the plight of Ai Weiwei in specific and political repression in China, which is quite serious," said Joshua Markel, the vigil's organizer. "It’s a very big human rights problem.”

Markel, who is from Philadelphia, said the United States government had not addressed human rights in China, citing “compromises it has made with China in the interest of economic gain.”

At the vigil, attendees planned to hold posters and life-sized cutouts of the controversial artist to, in Markel's words, “communicate the fact that he is present among us." The rally will also serve as a fundraiser for the organizers: Ai life-sized cutouts will be sold for $50 each.

Since mid-April, Ai’s supporters from around the world have been calling for the detained artist’s release. In New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has gotten more than 143,000 signatures on its petition demanding that the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China release Ai. The petition has the support of the Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate museum and the American Association of Art Museum Directors, among others. Sculptors Anish Kapoor and Daniel Buren canceled upcoming shows in China in support of Ai. On July 12, the 100th day of Ai’s detention, activists will urge museums to either shut down or perform some act of solidarity with Ai, bringing to the forefront an ongoing conversation on how American museums should address the conflict between his detention and their increasing collaboration with China.

Markel, the organizer of Thursday's vigil, lauded Ai for his politically-conscious work, describing him as a representative figure for thousands of detained Chinese dissidents.

“Ai has been really amazing in his commitment to artistic freedom and doing what he believes in at the same time as championing the cause of people who have been most hurt in China,” he said.

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed some 5,000 schoolchildren and tens of thousands of people, Ai demanded that the Communist Party conduct a transparent investigation of the tragedy. In recent years, he has also expanded his activism online, posting on his blog and on Twitter despite strict Chinese censorship laws.

“He’s been just unceasing in being critical when it was time to be critical of the government and fearless ... at his own peril,” said Markel. “He’s been an enormously brave person who needs to be supported.”

In addition to Thursday’s staged protest, Ai’s work will also be featured at the Asia Society in an upcoming exhibition called “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993.”

The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday and runs through Monday, August 14, will feature 227 images from the artist’s “New York Photograph” series, on view for the first time outside of China. Subjects range from Chinese intellectuals such as artist Xu Bing to drag queens at Wigstock. All of the photos were selected by Ai before he was detained.

The Chinese Consulate did not return WNYC's calls for a comment.

Updated 11 A.M., 6/22/11

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