Saturday, 14 November 2015

Hanging Man, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei: Book Review | The Small Desk

I was lucky enough to go to the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy this month, and it inspired me to write a blog post explaining who he is. You may want to read that blog post first, if you haven't already.

After I visited the exhibition I was going to buy the catalogue, but instead ended up buying Hanging Man by Barnaby Martin about the arrest of Ai Weiwei. I am incredibly glad that I did, as it is one of the best books I've read in a long while.

Barnaby Martin is a journalist, and used to write for The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times. I did a quick Google of him, and apparently he has written many bestselling novels under a pseudonym. I'm not that surprised this isn't his debut book, as the writing is effortless and reads like a dream. I would say this book is definitely a page-turner, as it only took me two weeks to read, which is super speedy for me.

Hanging Man was published in 2013, and is said to be the most detailed book on what happens nowadays to Chinese prisoners. The book is named after one of Ai Weiwei's early works where he took a coat-hanger and transformed it into the profile of artist, Duchamp.

In the first few pages Martin justifies why he is writing this book and one of his reasons is: "For most non-Chinese people... knowledge of China is very limited indeed", which I wholeheartedly agree with, and am grateful to him for writing this book, as I now feel 100x more educated on China and its history!

The book starts out with a history of Chinese politics, which I have to say I did struggle to get through. It's an incredibly long history, and pretty complicated with lots of unfamiliar names. However it is completely necessary to make sure you can follow the conversations with Ai Weiwei later on in the book.

Martin first meets Ai Weiwei in a London hotel in 2010 to interview him about his now infamous Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern. When he hears of his arrest and later of his release in 2011, he immediately decides to fly to China and interview Weiwei, who was still under house arrest in Beijing. This means that the conversations they have are very detailed and fresh. There are funny anecdotal stories mixed in with troubling and harrowing descriptions of his time under arrest, and of his life story. We learn that his father, poet Ai Qing, was in Mao's close circle, but was later banished to the Gobi desert where they were forced to live in a hole in the ground. It is almost a biography of Ai Weiwei.

Weiwei was born in 1957, and so grew up during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution is a topic that is discussed at length, and is something which very much shaped Ai Weiwei's work. In 1966 Chairman Mao launched what is now known as the Cultural Revolution, which lasted for ten years until Mao's death in 1976. During this time Mao closed down schools and universities, intellectuals were attacked, physically and verbally, and many were killed. The one book that was distributed in its millions across China, was the Little Red Book of Mao's quotations. Indeed, Weiwei left China in 1981, as it was still difficult to get any books on Western art. Ironically, in the exhibition at the RA they have a recently published book on display showing the Western edition with Ai Weiwei listed and the Chinese edition where he has been removed.

Weiwei was also part of the 'Stars' artist group, who Barnaby Martin credits as the first group who "first lit up the darkness of Chinese art after the Cultural Revolution and it was the Stars who took the first major risks and broke new ground".

I don't want to go into much more detail, as I think Martin is much better at explaining everything, along with the words of Ai Weiwei himself. I urge you to read this book, as it is so brilliantly written and incredibly insightful.


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