Ai Weiwei: Art and Politics in China
Ai Weiwei (born 1957, Beijing), an outspoken and internationally recognized Chinese artist, continues to garner headlines around the world for his art and his outspoken social activism. For those not familiar with Ai Weiwei you may have first noticed his name in connection with his contribution to the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest (see photo below), and most recently by the international attention focused on a major installation by the artist at the London Tate Modern – Sunflower Seeds 2010 (see text below). An indication of Ai Weiwei’s stature was the art magazine ArtReview’s selection of the artist in 2011 as “…the art world’s most powerful figure”. This distinction is the culmination of over 30 years of creative output.
He is in the news again with the announcement by the Serpentine Gallery of a new project, as part of the Cultural Olympiad for London 2012, that will see him partner with his Swiss architectural collaborators on the Beijing stadium. As well, the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”, which won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance, has been announced for release in theatres this summer.
The price Ai Weiwei has paid for his critical views has been in the form of repeated harassment by the Chinese government and the destruction in July 2010 of his new studio in Shanghai. Adding to the examples of China’s lack of respect for an individual’s civil liberty was Ai Weiwei’s arrest in April 2011. He was held incommunicado at an unknown location for 81 days. His arrest and the imprisonment the same year as Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, while denounced by several world leaders and the international arts community, went unremarked upon by the Government of Canada.
While the Harper government continues its quest for business with China it finds it convenient to overlook the basics freedoms denied the Chinese people. If individuals with the profile of Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo have their rights curtailed what chance does the average citizen have? Harper’s February 2012 visit to China was another missed opportunity. As reported by the CBC it is unclear what progress was made regarding human rights. The Prime Minister “…merely tells us afterwards that he raised the issue.”
Since the Beijing Olympics and the Szechuan Province earthquake in the same year, Ai Weiwei has become much more vocal in his social commentary and public criticism of the Chinese government which first began in 2006 through his now-closed blog site. He has relentlessly pointed out the inadequacies of Chinese authorities in dealing with the plight of the children of the Szechuan earthquake and those affected by the deadly apartment fires in Shanghai in November 2010. As a result Ai Weiwei has been subjected to police surveillance, house arrest, imprisonment and harassment when attempting to leave the country to attend art exhibitions featuring his work.
The likely tipping point for the Chinese government was Ai Weiwei’s focusing of world attention on the shoddy construction of the seven thousand classrooms that collapsed in Szechuan in his piece Remembering, 2009 (an installation of 9,000 children’s backpacks, commemorating the school children killed in the 2008 earthquake).
Protest runs in his blood. His father, the poet Ai Qing, who was educated in Paris in the 30s, was exiled and prohibited from publishing for 20 years. With Ai Weiwei’s success in harnessing social media as a medium for his art, some say he inherited his father’s writing skills “…mixing official government rhetoric with low-level slang and curse words”. MIT Press has recently published Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009.
By way of background, Ai Weiwei moved to New York in 1981 but returned to Beijing in 1993 when his father was in poor health. His early work in the USA was heavily influenced by conceptual art practices at the time and in particular the use of the “readymade” (found objects). Ai Weiwei’s spin on the use of readymades (as Marcel Duchamp did with bicycle wheels and urinals) was to raise the stakes and focus on “ancient readymades” – Han Dynasty urns and Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture. His early work raised issues for me – not sure how readymades from everyday objects (Duchamp’s practice) square with the destruction of historically valuable urns and furniture.
My interest in Ai Weiwei has focused more on the changes that occurred in early 2000 when his work shifted from found objects to social commentary through large-scale, more architectural-based projects employing artists and craftsmen to assist with the production. One such piece that I saw was entitled Boomerang, 2006. A 300,000-piece crystal chandelier – “…extravagant symbols of affluence and aspiration, chandeliers provide all the Versailles-style bling that China’s increasingly affluent middle class could hope for in the adornment of their homes, hotels and shopping malls” (Fifth Asia-Pacific Triennial, 2007 – catalogue statement). For me this statement put into perspective the ever-increasing public display of the great wealth that now divides China and the proliferation of extravagant kitsch in the construction and adornment of public and private buildings.
A recent work attracting worldwide attention is Sunflower Seeds, 2010. It is an installation at London’s Tate Modern comprised of 100 million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds that were fabricated over a two-year period by some 1,600 artisans. Just this week, Tate Modern announced that it was acquiring eight million of those sunflower seeds for its permanent collection.
In analyzing this work, the curator at the Tate Modern commented: “Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?” I suppose from the perspective of the size of the population in China, 100 million seeds is about right to encourage our reflection on the place of the individual in society.
A January 13, 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal (Art’s New Pecking Order) has added to the attention that most art critics and journals have been giving for years to the reshaping of contemporary art in China. Ai Weiwei has been a major catalyst in this change and, leading by example, he has pushed a new generation of Chinese artists to publicly express themselves in ways that were unheard of in China 15 years ago. The number of Chinese artists receiving international attention and their ability to command high prices for their work are increasing exponentially. Some of my favorites, besides Ai Weiwei, are Zhang Huan, Yue Minjun and Huang Yong Ping.
I share the sentiments expressed by the author Salman Rushdie in his op-ed piece in the New York Times (April 19, 2011):
“When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever-present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, creative figures like Mr. Ai and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. Today the government of China has become the world’s greatest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo.”
And the Canadian government remains silent.