Tom Sutcliffe: Let's sow the seed of protest artfully

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Can a Tweet be art? Well, maybe if an artist tweets it. Try this for size: "Overturning police cars is a super-tough workout physically. I enjoy this sport event which probably is the only sport event I like, and I will definitely participate in". Or this: "I solemnly declare that here comes a name-calling era, and we will curse the enemy softly to death". Don't be put off by the slight awkwardness of the phrasing, incidentally, because these have been translated from Chinese and may not reflect the lapidary elegance of the original. Their author was Ai Weiwei – a prolific generator of electronic short-form provocations – and they appeared on a collection of his tweets published by a supportive Chinese website. Since he sent them out, of course, he's been arrested by the Chinese government and his current whereabouts are unknown.

If they had been planning to raise his international profile they could hardly have managed it better. Tate Modern, which has just hosted Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall, adapted the signage on its façade to read "Release Ai Weiwei". And the international art community has been mobilising in defence of its own as well. Unveiling a vast new installation at the Grand Palais in Paris the other day, the British artist Anish Kapoor dedicated the work to Ai Weiwei, condemned his detention as "barbaric" and suggested that perhaps museums and galleries across the world should close their doors for a day in solidarity. Online petitions have been organised and other plans for protest made.

What is slightly disappointing – given the strain of mischief and wit in Ai Weiwei's goading of the Chinese state – has been the lack of inventiveness in the opposition to his arrest. A New York arts organisation called Creative Time proposed an initiative titled 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei which invited supporters worldwide to bring a chair and sit peacefully outside Chinese embassies in vigil. This was a knowing reworking of an Ai Weiwei installation which consisted of 1001 late Ming and Qing dynasty wooden chairs, which was shown at the Documenta Art Fair in 2007. But, unless I missed the reports in the press, the idea doesn't seem to have caught fire. And most of the other reactions to his arrest have been – to use an art-world condemnation – hopelessly derivative of other forms of political protest.

One understands, of course. People care about it and it's a serious matter. Nobody wants to appear frivolous. But, although Ai Weiwei's own forms of dissent against the Chinese state include straightforward activism, there's often been a wit to the way that he confronts power that is part of his charm, and it seems a pity that it can't be enlisted here as a combination of tribute and protest. I found myself thinking a lot about those sunflower seeds and their evocative combination of lightness and weight. Taken individually they're negligible – just as one individual protest would be. But accumulated in mass, as they are in the Turbine Hall, they're unignorable. What would it feel like, one wonders, for every Chinese embassy to receive sunflower seeds in the post every day – and perhaps not just a handful but a quantity that amounted to a practical embarrassment?

Or what if protestors outside Chinese embassies were to throw not stones – which would almost certainly break the law – but sunflower seeds, which might technically do the same but would at least make for a very funny court case should the point be pressed. The legal arguments necessary to suggest that the propulsion of a single sunflower seed at a large stone building constituted an act of vandalism or of intimidation might constitute a work of art in its own right.

But I'm sure others could come up with far better ideas. The point, though, is surely to give the opposition to Ai Weiwei's arrest a degree of flair and imagination. That's what got him into trouble with the authorities in the first place and it should be one of the weapons deployed to get him out of jail.

Thou forget'st so long, but all's well that ends well

I read something earlier this week suggesting that neuroscientific research had established that viewing art lights up the same areas of the brain as being in love. On closer inspection this looked a little tautologous to me ("things that give us pleasure affect pleasure centres of the brain, says leading scientist"), but it's certainly true that you can feel a little rush of blood to the head when you encounter something wonderful, even when you've been in a relationship with the art for years and think there's nothing it can do to surprise you. It happened to me the other night watching All's Well That Ends Well at The Globe. This isn't a play I know very well – it's sufficiently problematic for an audience that it doesn't get all that many productions. But I'd never really noticed one of its great moments – when Helena is sparring with Parolles on the subject of virginity. Talking of Bertram, Helena describes him (in a tellingly interrupted line) as "one that I wish well". Then she starts a sentence – "Tis pity..." – but does not finish it. After Bertram has prompted her she spills out this: "That wishing well had not a body in't,/ Which might be felt". What a line – utterly decorous and yet full of sexual yearning, not to mention knowledge about that frustrating gap between desire and consummation. Sometimes, even with Shakespeare, you have to work at a relationship. But, on good days, you're reminded why you fell in love in the first place.

Don't judge this art by its artist

It's as elementary a mistake to judge the art by the artist as it is to judge a book by its cover, but it's hard to fight the instinct sometimes. The other day I went to see Tate Modern's exhibition Burke and Norfolk, which pairs up two photographers of Afghanistan in time of war – one born in 1843 and the other in 1963. The project is the idea of Simon Norfolk, who takes large-format digital images of contemporary Afghanistan, concentrating not on the front line but on the brutal architecture of security. These are exhibited alongside the work of the 19th- century Irish photographer John Burke, who depicted an earlier generation of British squaddies trying to impose peace on the same bit of land. I liked Norfolk's pictures a lot, sometimes literally so, as in a photograph of battered Kabul cars parked beneath the wings of an abandoned Russian bomber. But then I heard Norfolk on the radio talking about how he had been trying to "photograph my own disappointment". What makes you think anyone else would be interested in looking at that, I thought, and as he continued with a crudely simplistic account of the war's failures, the enigma seemed to drain from the pictures. They weren't art it seems, they were agit-prop, even though they hadn't changed at all. Still worth seeing, though, I think...





t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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