Photo by flickr user Gheedon
Yesterday, Newsweek published a despairing essay by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, just over two months since his release from detention, in which he sums up his frustrations with the current Chinese seat of power at Beijing, calling China's capital "a nightmare." In the essay, Ai relates the ethically dubious nature of the powers at be with the metonymous oppressiveness of the city's spaces and corridors--and the psychological torment yielded therein.
Ai presents a deeply negative account of his city of birth, undoubtedly tinged with the painful, draining experiences wrought by his 81-day stay in an undisclosed prison, where he was subjected to, according to various sources, "being detained and fitted with a black hood... watched twenty-four hours a day by shifts of two uniformed military police sergeants, who stayed less than three feet from his side, sometimes inches away, while he slept, showered, and used the bathroom." As Ai himself maintains, the grounds of his treatment could have been lifted from the pages of Kakfa.
Beijing is, according to the artist, a divided city, where a unilateral accumulation and circulation of money, and, it follows, power yields an impenetrable bureaucratic machine wreaking calamitous imbalance and instilling a desperation among the poorest, yet most hard suffering workers who have migrated from villages to the capital to earn their living. These disenfranchised workers come to build Beijing's infrastructure, to enable the heedless expansion of the city while further entrenching its class divisions. They also arrive to construct the large-scale baubles which advertise China's "progress" through international expos and events: "Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird's Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights."
Photo by flickr user danasmith
Through his words, the artist reveals himself, the urbanist: "The strongest character of those spaces is that they’re completely cut off from your memory or anything you’re familiar with. You’re in total isolation. And you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There’s no way to even question it. You’re not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It’s very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs."
Photo by flickr user dietrichboettcher
Ai's prognosis of Beijing as active agent of disassociation reminds me of blogger Bryan Boyer's vivid description of the endlessness of Beijing's boulevards, of the maddening incomprehensibility of their impermeable haze and perpetual irresoluteness:
"It's a city that any kid who grew up with video games already knows: the Z-buffer culling of distant objects to reduce render time is exactly what dense smog produces. Successive layers of massive buildings and leafless trees rendered as increasingly pale outlines encapsulate you in a little sphere of existence, your own little microcosm of the endless city, as if seeing the whole thing at once would simply require too much processing power from your human brain. Please upgrade your buffers before you visit the city of the future. Beijing has vanquished the vanishing point. What's next?"
Photo by flickr user g.bugel
With the publishing of this essay, Ai most boldly violates the terms of his release, potentially putting himself at great risk. But he has done so with particular acumen, if without a touch of subtlety (never one of his strengths). "This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure," he concludes. "If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare."