Going Bald For Ai Weiwei: A Righteous Head-Shaving Performance Sharpens Debate Over Milwaukee Museum's Collaboration With China

Going Bald For Ai Weiwei: A Righteous Head-Shaving Performance Sharpens Debate Over Milwaukee Museum's Collaboration With China

Forget petitions: art professionals are showing their support for detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in increasingly creative ways. Last week, Milwaukee-based Mike Brenner shaved his head into a style reminiscent of Ai's outside the Milwaukee Art Museum as a show of support for the artist, who has been missing for over two months.


The site of Brenner's demonstration was particularly pointed considering MAM has come under fire in recent weeks for its decision to proceed with its exhibition "Emperor's Private Paradise," organized in conjunction with the government-run Palace Museum in Beijing. MAM's director Dan Keegan is fighting back against the controversy with forceful statements about art institutions' proper position as isolated from political matters. "We don't do protests... I would say very emphatically that we should not protest ever," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this week. 


Such strong language put Keegan in an awkward position when protest arrived quite literally at his doorstep in the form of Brenner's symbolic haircut. "We have a unique opportunity here in Milwaukee to create an international forum to discuss what's happening," Brenner, a multifaceted local personality who describes himself as an "arts instigator," as well as a "brewer" and "bridge burner," told the Sentinel regarding the impetus for his shaving demonstration.


When he arrived at MAM to perform his demonstration, electric razor in hand, Brenner was greeted by a small audience of journalists, bloggers, and fellow artists. To his surprise, however, the onlookers also included museum guards, who told him he couldn't demonstrate on museum property. "The security guards being there surprised me, but it didn't bother me," said Brenner. "It only changed where I planned to be by 24 inches."

Asked about the intervention of museum guards, MAM's Keegan later apologized, calling it a "goof-up." "We knew about Mr. Brenner's haircut activity, which, actually, I thought was kind of cool."  

MAM will unveil "Emperor's Private Paradise," a traveling exhibition of art from the Forbidden City previously displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on June 11. The show is part of Milwaukee's "Summer of China," a series of exhibitions and programs devoted to exploring China's 3000-year-old cultural heritage. The museum will address Ai Weiwei at a July 7 panel discussion about the artist's detention and artists' rights in China.

Somewhat ironically, Keegan also reported that he had previously made an unsuccessful bid to bring Ai's "Zodiac Heads" to Milwaukee for the exhibition. Despite this connection, he continued to underscore his belief that cultural institutions should not entangle themselves with politics, even when those politics directly involve artists he has attempted to show.

"We also don't do politics and I think you'd acknowledge that the Ai Weiwei thing, there's a political piece to this," he told reporter Bobby Tanzilo. "He's an artist who works in that whole political arena." 

To see Mike Brenner shave his head at the Milwaukee Art Museum, click on the video below: