Freedom in a twenty-first century world

The novelist Philip Roth said some 50 or so years ago that it is impossible to write satirical fiction in America because reality, so obscene and ridiculous as it is, will quickly outdo anything that you may invent. Therein lies the comic tragedy not just of his country of birth, but of civilisation as a whole. Then, before, today and beyond, the bittersweet carousel of life continues to spawn things that are the stuff of fantasies.
In the San Francisco Bay, 1.5-miles from San Francisco, California, lies a small island. Built into its rocky terrain is aninfamous former prison known as Alcatraz. It is claimed that during the federal penitentiary’s 29-year operation, no one successfully escaped from it. The debate as to the authenticity of that argument continues to intrigue but what is certain is that Clint Eastwood always comes to mind.
Since it ceased functioning as a prison in 1963, it has gone on to become an extremely popular tourist attraction. That’s fairly understandable, for not only are its many stories compelling, within each of these narratives is another, equally intriguing tale. The prison too is a fascinating construct and despite its association with violence and punishment, there is a lot of fun to be had there. Part of that is pure amusement; the other is the sentiment that results in nervous laughter.
That sense of unease is important to note because from now until April, visitors heading over to the island canexperience something altogether different. It’ll be spellbinding but also, in the context of what awaits, disquieting, amplified by the context of the environment.
This is because parts of Alcatraz, which are usually restricted from the public, have been modified with probing installations that challenge our understanding of the complex nature of freedom, justice, individual rights and personal responsibility. The handiwork of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, already one of the great cultural figures of the twenty-first century, @Large is testimony to the peculiarity of the world in which we live.
Ai Weiwei has long been a nuisance to China. Revered around the world, the authorities simply don’t know what do with him. In such hopeless situations, they revert to what is easy – and note, this is a strategy deployed in western democracies as well – they take away his liberty. In 2011 for example, he was held without charge for 81 days. Though he not currently behind bars, he remains under heavy surveillance, his movements restricted. He is unable to leave the country.
Just as it was impossible to escape Alcatraz, it is just as difficult to get in. Just ask Weiwei. Now, no doubt, you will laugh nervously because the absurdity of the facts compels it. You’re meant to feel this way because the artist wants you to. That’s the idea behind the show: contradictions, the foolishness of it all and how unfortunate it is that the ugly truth leaves you feeling cold and dismayed.
Here is a US-based exhibition he has had to plan from China. He’ll never see it. Whistleblower Edward Snowden features in it and the American authorities consider him a fugitive. Snowden meanwhile has temporary asylum in Russia, a country whose international behaviour as of late has been shockingly belligerent. The list goes on.
Who then has the moral high ground between these three powerful nations? None of them, says Ai Weiwei. The US locks up more people than any other country in the world. In China you can be executed for large-scale corruption. At the start of 2013, Russia finally recognised beer as an alcoholic drink. All three account for half the world’s prison population. You can call that ‘real fiction’.
Discussing a famous line from the Genevan-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said “civilisation is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces”, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami described all civilisation as being the “product of a fenced-in lack of freedom”.
“The Australian aborigines are the exception, though; they managed to maintain a fenceless civilisation until the seventeenth century,” he said. They’re dyed-in-the-wool free. They go where they want, when they want, doing what they want. Their lives are a literal journey. Walkabout is a perfect metaphor for their lives.
“When the English came and built fences to pen in their cattle, the Aborigines couldn’t fathom it. And, ignorant to the end of the principle at work, they were classified as dangerous and antisocial and were driven away, to the outback. So I want you to be careful. The people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best. You deny that reality only at the risk of being driven into the wilderness yourself.”
Life then is a constant fight for what should be the fundamental truth of the world – that liberty is a natural right. That, unfortunately, is pure idealism and as history has shown, none of us are really born free, locked as we are in the social chains of whatever class we supposedly belong to, the zeitgeist of the time we live in, the colour of our skin, our gender, what faith we follow and the politics of our governments.
That’s a somewhat negative assertion and Weiwei is more optimistic than that. He did once say that “once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a country”. There’s always hope and action and perhaps he is a true believer of Bernard Crick’s idea of politics. This is the kind of freedom and power that allows all of us to “achieve goals and live in peace in spite of different and conflicting interests”.
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.