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Refusing to bend: Destruction of studio will boost Ai Weiwei’s cause

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The studio of Ai Weiwei, a high-profile artist and dissident, was recently destroyed by the Chinese government.

NEW YORK TIMES/SHIHO FUKADA Enlarge

Ai Weiwei has been celebrated in Vienna, praised in Paris, lauded in London, welcomed in Berlin and repeatedly feted in New York. He’ll have not one or two but three exhibits in Los Angeles this fall.

He is China’s most famous contemporary artist, renowned for his imagination, artistic skill and conscience — all of which threaten the communist government that fecklessly ordered his Beijing studio torn down without warning over the weekend.

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Only the most morally bankrupt regimes try to inhibit their nations’ cultural flowering and artistic growth. Only the most intellectually sterile fear the fertility of their citizens’ minds. In addition to China under Xi Jinping, think of the Nazis’ gleeful book-burning and ignorant assault on modern art. Think of the Soviets’ efforts to infuse their empty sloganeering into music and literature and the flowering of underground writing, known as samizdat, that spread throughout the communist bloc in defiance of the cultural Iron Curtain.

Much of Mr. Ai’s work challenges the government, but not all of it does. His 2017 movie Human Flow, for example, chronicles the refugee crisis in 23 countries. In 2016, he suspended giant renderings of fish and other creatures from Chinese lore above the sales floor of a Paris department store, while outside he displayed other works, such as depictions of surveillance cameras, speaking to the repression endemic to Chinese society and specific to him.

This weekend’s assault was nothing new for Mr. Ai, who had another studio torn down by the authorities in 2011. He’s also been beaten, bullied, imprisoned and had his passport revoked.

These efforts to repress Mr. Ai have failed; his celebrity, his perseverance, and perhaps even his creativity increase with each outrage perpetrated against him. One of his best known works — a self-taken photo of Mr. Ai’s middle finger raised in Tiananmen Square, site of a brutal crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989 — sums up his resilience.

The neighborhood that housed the studio is undergoing gentrification, and that may have been the proximate reason for the building’s elimination. Mr. Ai may be among many other victims of a redevelopment effort that pushes out the poor and others who stand in the way of the government’s vision of urban progress. But there’s no doubt that the Chinese leadership considers the displacement of Mr. Ai — and damage to some of his works — a nice bonus.

Make no mistake, this will prove to be just another rash action that buoys Mr. Ai’s stature. According to artnet.com, debris from the demolished studio may be repurposed in some of the artist’s future work. One can almost read the press release now.

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