Today I posted off a small artist’s book I made for the Sheffield International Artist’s Book Competition. My wife and I have been following the plight of several prisoners of conscience, especially that of Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, who has in the past repeatedly criticised the Chinese government’s human rights record. He ‘disappeared’ in April 2010 and has not been seen since. He has been detained and tortured by the Chinese authorities in the past and has presumably received the same treatment (or worse) since his latest arrest. Another dissident who has been squished by the monstrous backside of the Chinese state is artist Ai Weiwei – recently released but still accused of tax evasion. There are many other prisoners of conscience in China and a host of other countries, who suffer torture and detention at the hands of governments. As a Christian, I am particularly mindful of the sufferings of other Christians for their faith, or for the heroic stands they make. Two examples picked from a recent publication by Release International are Chinese Pastor ‘Bike’, who has been arrested 40 times and tortured with electric shock batons and the1500-or-so Christians estimated to be imprisoned under brutal conditions in Eritrea. Pastor ‘Bike’ has written a series of open letters to the Chinese President urging for religious freedom. There are plenty of others (Christian and not).
‘Witness/Martus (for Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei and the others)’ is a small book made from the pages of an academic journal, bound using an oriental style of binding. The entire book is firmly sewn shut with a network of stitches which go right through from cover to cover. The resulting grid of stitches both forms a decorative device and recalls the wire mesh of a prison fence. I wanted to do something which spoke both of the beauty of those who are willing to risk their lives, bodies, families, possessions, reputations and everything in order to stand up for truth and for others and which also spoke of the ugliness of repression. The book is sewn closed; it cannot be opened; it is censored, but this paradoxically makes it into a powerful witness – just as the censored lives of Gao Zhisheng and others speak powerfully against the tyranny they are under. That is, as long as they remain in the eyes of the world – the real silencing of the witnesses is when they are forgotten as well as locked up. The grid pattern on the cover of ‘Witness/Martus’ also recalls the mesh that used to be used to hold news bulletins onto the boards outside newsagents. My hope is that, by helping to keep the cases of Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei and the others in the public mind, pressure can be put on the Chinese and other governments to release their prisoners of conscience and cease their oppressions.
The words painted on the two covers of the book are ‘Witness’ and the Greek word ‘Μαρτυς‘ (‘Martus’). Martus is ancient Greek for ‘witness’ and it is also the root of our word ‘martyr’. For many the flip side of being a witness is being a martyr.