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New Yorkers Cheer Release of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei

By Amy Zimmer | June 22, 2011 5:35pm

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN — Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei — whose work now on display in New York — was released on bail after nearly three months of detention in China under murky circumstances, reports said Wednesday.

The news came just a day before his supporters had planned to hold a vigil in front of his public art piece, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," at the Plaza Hotel's fountain on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue and a week before Asia Society, on the Upper East Side, opens an exhibit of 227 photos from his New York days.

The 54-year-old, an oustpoken critic of the Chinese government who reportedly suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, texted to friends: "I'm out. I'm fine," after returning to his studio in Beijing, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The official New China News Agency reported that Ai had been freed "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."

Though he was never formally charged, reports said Ai's company had evaded taxes and that his release involved his pledge to pay up.

"This has positive implications not just for Ai Weiwei personally, as we are concerned for his health and well-being, but also for international perceptions of China," Melissa Chiu, Asia Society's museum director, said in a statement.

"As an artist, his work stands for individual expression," she said, "and we hope his release has delivered a new promise of creative potential for him and other artists there."

Ai's public art piece of 12 bronze animal heads went up last month and will be on display through July 15.

His show at Asia Society, which opens on June 29 and runs through Aug. 14, features photographs of New York he took when he lived in a tiny East Village apartment from 1983 to 1993. They document poetry readings, riots in Tompkins Square Park, drag queens at Wigstock and other artists and intellectuals from China, such as filmmaker Chen Kaige, composer Tan Dun and artist Xu Bing.

Chiu called the pictures a "poignant and powerful chronicle of Ai's artistic vision and emerging political consciousness during his time in New York."

Ai, one of the designers of the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, distanced himself from that building as he became critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Later that year, after an earthquake in Sichuan province killed an estimated 70,000 and displaced 4.8 million, he began a project to publish the names of the victims on his block and then moved his online social activism to Twitter to circumvent government censors.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Ai's release a "cause for optimism, even as many disturbing questions remain about the circumstances surrounding his detainment," saying in a statement that last month's public art unveiling, "we stood in solidarity with the millions of people around the world who were hoping for his release."

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation had collected more than 143,000 signatures on its petition calling for his release.