So the media thought the Ai Weiwei party was cancelled … but it wasn’t. Only a handful of the press were there – Reuters, South China Morning Post, Le Monde and a few others. A few hundred people turned up to the artist’s studio, which served as a venue for music, food, overnight residence and political presentation.
As controversial Beijing artist Ai Weiwei remained under house arrest in Beijing for planning a protest party, his “party of politics” went into full swing at his soon to be demolished $1.1m (£670,000) studio in the Jiading district of Shanghai. It was an ironic celebration of the decision made by authorities to tear the building down after they had persuaded him to build it. Ai publicly cancelled his party via Twitter and through the media on Saturday. He led the authorities to believe it wasn’t happening, only for it to go ahead on Sunday afternoon from 12pm.People had travelled from far across China, staying and sleeping at his studio from Wednesday to secure a place at the long dining table, which crossed the central courtyard. The feast included dishes of stewed beef, pork and asparagus, fresh bread, white rice and the promised 10,000 local river crabs. Local chefs and kitchen-hands made and served the food from a small room at the front of the building, viewed through an open window which turned into a public viewing platform.
The crabs, considered a local delicacy, were used at the party as a jibe at officialdom. In Chinese, the word for river crab, hexie, sounds very similar to that for “harmony”, the ideological buzzword of the current regime referencing the censorship of China. It is a word that is frequently used ironically by Chinese Internet users, and here is used in reference to the “harmonising” of Ai’s new studio. As the crabs were served, people started to chant repeatedly, “For a harmonised society eat river crabs…”, whilst smiling and laughing, considering it a personal yet political joke.
At one stage, a young teenage boy held up a handmade sign making his own personal protest, only to quickly be patted on the head by an elder and told to think clearly about his actions. Later on in the day, the commercial reality of the event set in as the organisers sold books and large photographic portrait posters by Ai. These posters were held up by individuals as another form of visual protest, explicitly referencing back to the propaganda posters used during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970s.
Only a handful of Westerners were present at the event where the atmosphere was jovial, although there was a serious undercurrent filled with the negative possibilities of what could occur that day, making you realise the local and global presence and power of not only Ai, but the authorities.
At the end of the event questions remained. Will river crab become a banned food in China? And would consuming this delicacy mean that you hold subversive intent against the authorities?