Ai Weiwei supporters defy Chinese house arrest

A party at the dissident artist's studio in Shanghai goes ahead without its host.

Despite his being under house arrest in Beijing, around 500 supporters of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei gathered at his soon-to-be-demolished Shanghai studio on Sunday. Partygoers were served river crab and steamed buns, and held up posters of Ai that displayed the gash on his forehead which he received when he was beaten by police in 2008.

Ai told the New Statesman:

It was fantastic to see pictures from the event as it was happening. Many people that went had been warned by police not to go. So I'm touched that so many people went and had a great time.

Ai added that he was surprised the police let the event go ahead:

Maybe they were aware of all of the bad press they have had. But it might be because Shanghai cares more about its image than Beijing does. The event would have got even more attention if they had shut it down. And David Cameron is coming next week -- which is something the BBC has been writing about -- so they were clever to try and keep it quiet.

Partygoers who had travelled from outside of Shanghai were invited to stay overnight at the studio. Zhang Haibo, a 24-year-old restaurant worker living in Beijing, made the 1,000km trip to Shanghai with a small group of friends. Although Zhang was warned against attending by the Chinese government, he slept at the studio overnight on one of hundreds of beds that were dotted around the space. He told the New Statesman:

Two days ago I was invited to "drink tea" with the authorities. They said to stop supporting Ai and to stop following him on Twitter. And yesterday [6 November] they called me and said not to go to Shanghai for the banquet ... I am not an artist. And I don't care too much about Mr Ai Weiwei's work. But me and my friends are here to support him -- we also want democracy and liberty.

Another supporter, Li Dezhi, was awarded a handful of Ai's sunflower seeds, like those currently on display at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, for completing more press-ups (89) than any of the other 20 competitors.

"Today was about having fun and to demonstrate that we support Ai Weiwei and what he stands for," said the 23-year-old from Shanghai. "I guess this event was also a piece of performance art. I knew everyone coming wouldn't stop it from being knocked-down. It was just important to be here."

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad