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Billyburg artist in China’s big house • Brooklyn Paper

Billyburg artist in China’s big house

A Williamsburg artist and several colleagues were arrested in China as part of a roundup of pro-Tibet activists.
Students for a Free Tibet

The Chinese, who are hoping that their efficient oversight of the Beijing Games will wipe away memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, have arrested one of Williamsburg’s best-known multi-media artists after discovering that he planned to project a pro-Tibet message on a building in the Chinese capital.

Artist James Powderly has been in a Chinese jail since Aug. 19 — charged with “upsetting public order,” according to a statement put out by the Beijing police department, as transmitted via Agence France-Presse.

With the world watching the Beijing games, the internationally acclaimed graffiti and light art maestro — whose laser “tags” have fleetingly graced the Brooklyn Bridge and the walls of the Museum of Modern Art — tried to steal away some viewers.

But police nabbed him before he could flip the switch of a laser-powered stencil that would temporarily illuminate the side of a building near, ironically, Tiananmen Square with the words “Free Tibet.”

Friends of the Grand Street resident found out about Powderly’s detention on Tuesday when he posted on the social networking Web site Twitter that he had been “held since 3 am.”

That’s the last they’ve heard from Powderly.

“He wasn’t unaware that there could be some [legal repercussions],” said his wife, Michelle Kempner. “It was just more important to him to stay true to his cause. Everything he does is about free speech.”

Though Powderly was apprehended alone, he traveled to Beijing to collaborate with five activists from the group Students for a Free Tibet — including Brooklynites Samantha Corbin, Jacob Blumenfeld, and Lauren Valle — who were arrested later that day after unfurling a light-up “Free Tibet” banner in front of the famed “Bird’s Nest” stadium, the student organization said.

Powderly and his American compatriots will be held for 10 days, the police statement said.

State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said that federal officials were “seeking further information from Chinese authorities.”

“The United States does encourage the government of China to demonstrate respect for human rights and that includes freedom of expression.”

The New York art world was certainly expressing itself about Powderly’s detention.

“We’re all concerned and we’re hoping for his quick release,” said Amanda McDonald Crowley, executive director of the New York art and technology center, Eyebeam, where Powderly designed many of his projection tools.

“We have gathered that a number of other protesters have actually been released or quickly deported — we’re hoping that what’s going to happen here.”

As China’s authoritarian regime attempts to use these Olympic games to wipe away memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and decades of human rights abuses, the state has nonetheless cracked down on freedom of expression during the XXIX Olympiad, nixing all 77 applications for legal protests during the games, according to the New York Times.

And no subject is sorer than Tibet — the mountainous state to the northwest that China claims as its own territory, though Tibet was long a free state until China seized it in 1950.

Powderly’s art has often addressed political themes with projections that criticize President Bush and the Iraq War, but he’s never been in trouble with the law, his wife said.

“There is always natural concerns before a project like this, but I trust James and I don’t think he would have embarked in something dangerous,” she added.

Though nervous, Kempner is optimistic that her husband will be back in Billyburg soon.

“I’m expecting a random phonecall telling me that he’s outside our apartment and that he can’t find his key,” she said.

Williamsburg’s famed multi-media artist James Powderly was arrested — and is still being detained — in China for planning a “Free Tibet” light show.

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