Ai Weiwei Sends Empty Chair to Stockholm Film Fest in Protest

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei
 Ted Alcorn

His attendance was never expected, but a provocative response to his predicament was all but assured. 

In place of himself, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has sent an empty chair to the Stockholm Film Festival, a defiant artistic gesture symbolizing his inability to attend the event because of the intervention of Chinese authorities. Ai has been prevented from leaving China since he was released from prison in 2011, over charges of tax evasion, amid a political crackdown on outspoken artists and government critics. 

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The Stockholm Film Festival, which opens today, each year reserves one seat on its jury for a figure from a field of the arts other than film. Ai was invited for the 2013 edition, in light of the festival’s spotlight theme “freedom,” which explores the fact that “many filmmakers, artists and journalists still during the 2000s are not able to perform their work without the influence of censorship." 

The artist sent the specially designed chair to Sweden last week from his studio in Beijing. Designed by Ai himself in the classic Chinese style of the Ming Dynasty, it has one conspicuous intervention: a wooden bar across the front, making it impossible to sit in. It will be displayed in public view at the Skandia cinema, one of the main screening venues, for the duration of the 12-day festival. 

Appearing in a pre-recorded video message played Tuesday at a news conference, Ai said: "I feel sorry I can't come. That's why I have designed and sent something symbolic."

"I hope it can give some kind of statement on the way authorities can limit freedom of speech, can limit basic human rights for artists to travel or participate in cultural activities -- very ruthlessly and with no explanation," he added. "I'm still living under a kind of soft detention. My passport is still in the authorities' hands."

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Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave opens the Stockholm fest tonight. The midway point will be marked by a screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palm d’Or winner, Blue is the Warmest Color and the festival will end with Stephen Frears Philomena.

Stockholm organizers have not said whether Ai will be able to view and judge the films via streaming video or DVD screener, as his Internet access in Beijing is said to be intermittent. His participation may be simply symbolic.

Also notably absent from this year’s event will be Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, whose Cannes entry Manuscripts Don’t Burn about authors and artists murdered by Iranian agents in the 1980s and 90s is among the competition entries. Festival organizers say Iran seized Rasoulof’s his passport in September.

"In the internet age especially documentary films have made a great appearance in talking about issues, discussing truths, and also revealing secrets about those in power... especially when the power is not elected by the people," Ai said in his statement. 

The Stockholm Film Festival runs Nov. 6-17, with over 180 films from more than 50 countries in competition.

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