Wen Yunchao at his apartment in Hong Kong. By BROOK LARMER
Published: October 26, 2011
The cellphone vibrated softly, insistently, echoing off the whitewashed walls of the artist’s studio. It was a Sunday morning in early April, and Wang Bo — an Internet animator better known to his legions of online fans by his nickname, Pi San — ignored the call at first. He wanted no intrusions. A compact 40-year-old with short-cropped hair and arched eyebrows that give him a look of permanent bemusement, Pi San is most famous for creating a mischievous cartoon character named Kuang Kuang, but he earns money by making animations for corporations, and he was on a deadline. Pi San had bicycled to his studio in a defunct factory building on the outskirts of Beijing that morning, hoping to finish up some work in peace. But the buzzing of the phone didn’t stop.
The moment Pi San picked up, the caller blurted out the news: State security agents had just detained Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist and a government critic. Pi San spat out a profanity. Over the previous six weeks, hundreds of bloggers — lawyers, activists, journalists — had vanished into police custody in one of the harshest assaults on social activism in decades. Now they had Ai — fat, brilliant, bombastic and internationally renowned. If Ai could be arrested, was any independent thinker in China safe?
Pi San had reason to be scared. He and Ai were friends. A few weeks earlier, over lunch, the two artists talked about collaborating on a satirical Internet animation. Though a bit wary of Ai’s Web activism, Pi San admired his daring solo exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London. The most recent show had consisted of 100 million sunflower seeds made of porcelain, laid out across the floor of the Tate Modern, which visitors were invited to walk upon. Some considered the seeds to be symbols of the downtrodden Chinese people.
Despite his fear, Pi San quickly posted the news about Ai’s detention on Sina Weibo, China’s closely monitored equivalent of Twitter and the fastest-growing Internet platform in the world. An invisible censor deleted the message in seconds. He then tried posting, without comment, a cartoon drawing of Ai, the better to evade China’s word-sensitive filtering software. But the image disappeared, too — a sign that a human being, not computer software, had deleted the drawing. Pi San told his Weibo followers: “Again I was ‘harmonized.’ It’s just a picture!”
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