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Ai Weiwei: The Tweeting Artist

BEIJING —As the developed world has slumped into a recession, franchising firms have increasingly looked into emerging markets for new opportunities of growth. Their trade association has sent sales delegates from India to Vietnam. Franchisor Starwood Hotels even moved its global executive team and head office to China for a month in the summer of 2011. In the midst of poor news in the United States and Europe, Yum Brands stressed to its investors in the last quarter of the year its excitement over setting up more restaurants in China.

Some stock analysts wonder if China and other emerging countries bring more volatility and risk to franchise brands. Yum argued that to the contrary, it spreads the risk.

The artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) embodies the talent and the risk that emerging markets provide to franchise systems. Although Time Magazine beat us to the punch in naming Ai as one of their Persons of the Year for 2011, we have been watching him for some time. We think that more consistently than any other artist, Ai expresses in his art and architecture ideas that franchise leaders appreciate and grapple with.

The rather round artist wants to live his life, say what he wants, and even overeat, free from an autocratic body taking on the role of nanny.

The Bird's Nest in Beijing
Beijing National Stadium/Wikipedia

Ai is no Sunday school teacher. That comes through to the masses loud and clear in several of his works where he photographs his middle finger flipping off the government buildings at Tiananmen, the Eiffel Tower and even the White House. Although he gets his sustenance from the Middle Kingdom, the global Ai clearly wants us to know that his message isn't just meant for the Chinese.

If a franchise owner ever sent a fickle-finger-of-fate photograph to the CEO of its franchisor, it is very possible that their agreement would be terminated the next day and their franchised business entity freed of its life. Having said that, franchise owners do not have the problems that Ai has. They are not sent to prison or beaten for publicly criticizing their franchisor.

Ai Weiwei's seminal architectural achievement to date is the Beijing National Stadium. The Bird's Nest, as it is affectionately called, was the awe of the world during the Beijing Olympics. It is a public icon for the new Twitter age. The design is porous and "a collective building, a public vessel." To franchise owners, it is a symbol of transparency in disclosure and connectivity within a network.

Ai Weiwei walked away from his design for the Olympic stadium when it became obvious to him that the central government was using it to showcase their regime while having no intention of living up to their pre-Olympic game promise to loosen up on the tight controls of what their citizens can read and write on the Internet.

Ai Weiwei/photo Wikipedia

In the Fall of 2011, the Beijing-based artist revealed a carpet of handmade porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds at a British art museum. His intention was to have patrons interact with the art by walking, lying and sifting through the porcelain seeds. Each seed is handmade, yet is homogenized into a single manufactured carpet that covers the earth. For the franchise world, the artwork invites the question — how much diversity is a good thing? In a brand, do all stores ultimately need to be prefabricated to behave and look exactly the same to make the biggest impact in the aggregate?

After having lived, studied and worked in New York City for many years, Ai communicates in fluent English. He blogs, he tweets and engages in interview after interview. He is like the franchise owner who believes in connecting with his community and customer through social media — and he did so until the government gagged him in the year just past.

In May of 2011, Ai Weiwei explained why he liked poking fun at straw men, propaganda and bogus myths to Britain's Telegraph: "My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings," he said.

On Watson Island near downtown Miami, Ai exhibited his work "Bubble," a series of perfectly uniform blue porcelain balls dotting the land within their own exclusive territories, like Subway sandwich shops.

In another work, he reminds us of an updated Andy Warhol with a twist: he takes a priceless Han dynasty vase (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) and paints it over with a Coca-Cola logo (a product distribution franchisor, by the way). In its rush to modernity, China's old are boxed new to look like everything else. The venerated Buddhist temple on the hill is painted modern, adding a dance hall. The local beef noodle shop hangs the sign "Kentucky" over it to tap into the zeitgeist.

His fellow countrymen tend to see the artist through a different lens than the rest of the world. They hear the lyricism of his name and cannot help but think of his father, Ai Qing (艾青), one of China's first modern poets. Ai Weiwei's father joined the Communist revolution only to be branded a Rightist because of his criticism of the party's lack of free speech. He, and his family, suffered the consequences of not being a team player. They were sent to the Gobi Desert, where Ai Qing cleaned human manure and was banned from writing. After the death of Mao Zedong, the poet was brought back and appointed vice-chairman of the Chinese Writer's Association.

That brought the opportunity for the young Ai Weiwei to mingle with many of China's best minds and talents, an experience that few Chinese have had.

"Why does he have to be a troublemaker and rock the boat?" asks one immigrant Chinese entrepreneur to me. He thinks the artist has thrown away influence and opportunity by leaving the good graces of the government chief executives because of his refusal to play ball. Animated over how few customers are in his restaurant, high food costs, and whether he'll be able to pay himself this month, the entrepreneur shifts the discussion from the mundane back to the topic at hand: "If you live and prosper in a place, you have to live by its rules, no matter how unfair," the businessman says. "If he doesn't like it, he should leave," he adds, sounding like a few franchisees I've heard who speak of complainers in their franchise system. Although Ai Weiwei has lived, studied, and worked in America, he clearly is in a love affair with his homeland, a country built by effort, pain and tears from generations of his family. The wife of the businessman jumps into the conversation as she passes by: "Ai Weiwei is too good for China. It can't handle someone of his individualism and quality," sounding as if Ai were a world-class mind produced in a country only used to non-circumspect duplication and cheap knock-offs.

Ai Weiwei was recently released from a stint of nearly three months in prison for his outspokenness. The Chinese authorities cracked down in April, mindful of the Arab Spring uprisings that they feared could spread to their country. Ai's business has been bulldozed over. In November he was served with a $2.4 million assessment by Beijing authorities for unpaid taxes.

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