Chinese authorities returned Ai Weiwei’s passport earlier today, after holding it for four years. The Chinese artist’s repossession of his passport will allow him to leave China for the first time since 2011, when Beijing authorities refused to let Ai travel under the pretense that he owed $2.4 million in taxes.
In April of that year, the Chinese Communist Party detained Ai in a 12-by-24-foot room for tax evasion. (Ai is one of China’s most outspoken social critics, and the government had warned him that he could be imprisoned.) There, he was questioned about the monetary value and content of his work, psychologically tortured, and constantly surveilled. When he was released, after 81 days, Ai was put on probation. The artist then protested using art—he set up cameras in his house so that the government and the public could closely monitor his activities, and he bought a new bouquet of flowers daily to chronicle each day without freedom.
In 2012, with Chinese government officials changing over, it was suspected that the Beijing government may return Ai’s passport. The Hirshhorn had hoped he would make an appearance in Washington, D.C., for the opening of his first major museum survey in North America, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” which later became a hit show and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum. The New Yorker Festival had planned a talk for Ai, as did the Public Theater, in New York. The artist had accepted a teaching position at the Berlin University of the Arts, unsure of whether he would actually be able to travel to Germany. He never made it to any of these events or places.
This year, Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Ai began to ease. In June, the artist was allowed to have his first show in Beijing’s increasingly popular 798 Art District, at the Tang Contemporary Art Center. Today, Ai finally has his passport back, and he posted an Instagram of himself holding his new passport, accompanied by the caption, “Today, I got the passport,” written in Chinese.
For his first trip outside China since 2011, Ai will go to Germany, where one of his sons lives. The artist will presumably also travel to London in September, when a major survey of Ai’s work is set to open at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
The return of Ai’s passport comes a week after news that Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, also an outspoken critic of her country’s political state, received her passport from her government. Both artists will now be able to travel freely.