Report from ‘Sit In’ Outside Chinese Consulate, Manhattan, NY

A view of some of the many protesters at the Ai Weiwei protest in New York City (all photos by author)

At 1 pm EST today near the Chinese embassy in Manhattan, out by the water at 520 Twelfth Avenue, a congregation of chairs gathered. Members of the city’s art world, community members and human rights activists came out in force, to the tune of a few hundred, to protest for the release of Ai Weiwei, the internationally-famed artist who has been detained by the Chinese government for the past two weeks without charge.

Located in a fenced-off area just off the water, protesters staged a sit-in in homage to Ai’s 2007 piece “Fairytale,” which saw the artist bring 1,000 Chinese to Kassel, Germany and let them loose during a major art exhibition. Within the tent that formed the Chinese travelers’ dorms, Ai installed 1,001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs. This protest, named “1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei,” didn’t quite match the scale of the original, but artists and activists alike used the gesture, plus an array of homemade signs, to send a statement in support of Ai Weiwei. As Anne Pasternak of Creative Time (who organized the protest) said to the crowd, “Our goal is to keep the story alive.” By keeping the problem of Ai’s detention in the public eye, mounting pressure is put on the Chinese government to clarify the artist’s situation.

Sadly, while I was present, protesters didn’t have access to the embassy itself. Anne Pasternak was seen negotiating with police and mayoral staff to get seated protesters in front of the nondescript building for a final photo-op, but the process seemed difficult.

What was meant as a gesture in support of the artist was also crowded by the political nature of the protest — past the main body of art world community members was a blue-hatted crew of representatives from the Democratic Party of China, a vehemently anti-government group who were heard shouting about how Mao Zedong and Communism destroyed China. Some protesters wanted to march, to the chanted tune of “Free Ai Weiwei,” but they didn’t get far: the protest area was small and largely fenced in. Others, who I felt most in tune with, were content to sit peacefully.

Other protests for Ai Weiwei took place all over the world today, at Chinese embassies in Berlin as well as a very small contingent in Washington DC. As we get word of more protest actions, we’ll update this post. For now, check out the New York City crew below.

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Protesters bring chairs to the Chinese embassy at 520 Twelfth Avenue.

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A phrase similar in characters and sound to Ai Weiwei’s own name, “Love the Future,” or “Ai Wei Lai,” has become a way to bypass Chinese censorship for netizens.

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One of the protest’s youngest members, his sign reads, “Free Ai Weiwei.”

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A single chair left behind from protesters as some began to march back and forth, chanting slogans.

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The larger body of protesters were content to stake out their ground and sit peacefully on the chairs they brought.

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The one canine member of the protest sports a shirt saying, “Panda bears will be next.”

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This sign says “Indict or release,” which I thought was one of the most realistic statements made at the protest. The Chinese government still hasn’t stated what Ai is actually charged with or under arrest for.

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The Democratic Party of China protesters stuck to the rear of the seated crowd. They held up signs and shouted “Free Ai Weiwei,” “Free China,” and “Free Liu Xiaobo” (another jailed dissident). For the group, Ai’s case was implicated within bigger issues they have with the Chinese authorities.

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The Democratic Part of China holds up a banner at the rear of the crowd.

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Protesters hold up signs and chairs.

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The protesting group was blockaded by police cars. Police made sure that the demonstration didn’t interfere with the large bike lane or the sidewalk.

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The protest was meant to take place in front of the Chinese embassy, but the protest was relegated to a position across the street. The embassy was closed today, so the area was eerily silent.

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Anne Pasternak of Creative Time, the organization that planned the protest action in support of Ai Weiwei.

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Anne Pasternak speaks to the protesting group after trying to negotiate a change in position with police and mayoral staff.

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Protesters brought all kinds of chairs, from old to new, stools to wicker furniture.

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New York Magazine (and Facebook) art critic Jerry Saltz joined the protest for a short time, holding up a tiny model of an easy chair given to him by a protesting artist. His shirt references the artist Rikrit Tiravanija’s very hip latest show at Gavin Brown gallery. It reads, “Fear eats the soul.” He bolted right after this photo op.

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The protesters, seen looking towards the Chinese embassy.

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Tagged as: 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei, Anne Pasternak, Chinese Art, Creative Time, Jerry Saltz, politics, protests

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Filed under 2011, Ai Weiwei and Wen Tao's disappearance, detainment

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