The Chinese polymath artist Ai Weiwei was only one year old when his father Ai Quing, a revered poet who had run afoul of government censorship, and his mother, Gao Ying, were forced to leave their home in Beijing. For the next sixteen years, the family lived in the northwestern city of Shihezi in Xinjiang, with Tibet to the south and Mongolia to the north—a kind of internal exile bordering the Gobi desert. They were not allowed to return to Beijing until 1975; three years later, the young Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy where two of his fellow students were the director Chen Kaige and cinematographer Gu Changwei. One can only imagine what a cinematic dustup Ai may have created had he become a filmmaker. Instead, he became a multi-faceted artist/provocateur whose works may seem on first viewing to be innocently beautiful—but are, in fact, charged with multiple, metaphoric political messages.
In recent years, innuendo and metaphor, some of his art’s early markers, have dropped out of the work as he has become a living banner of unbridled confrontation, in his person and via social media, flying against the hot winds of China’s entrenched cronyism, corruption and censorship.
Whether his early experience in political exile created a personality that seems to relish encounters with mindless and arbitrary authority, or whether his twelve year’s living in New York City between 1981 and 1993 instilled in his soul a love of Western style chaotic freedom of the individual, or both—the simple truth is that the more the Chinese government tries to stifle and persecute him (including a much publicized police beating in his Chengdu hotel room in the middle of the night), the more he becomes an international poster child for the singular, heroic artist David locked in mortal combat with a brainless state Goliath.
For 81 days in the spring and summer of 2011, Ai virtually disappeared. While attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong, he was detained by authorities, incarcerated, and interrogated several dozen times. His blog had already been shut down but now he also was charged with tax evasion, clearly an effort to break him. Supporters rallied at a national and international level, online, with $1.3 million, and local admirers even threw money over the perimeter wall of his studio, likely confusing the lolling, resident cats.
Since then, his communications with the outside world have been compromised as he has been forced to concentrate on defending himself from the government charges—a tired but all too predictable tactic used by repressive regimes to muzzle dissent.
You can’t help but speculate how much this constant concentration on defending himself, how his stifled hopes for personal free expression and political democracy for his fellow citizens, and his desire to communicate with other artists--- have diverted him from the actual physical making of art, work that for him often demands the co-operative efforts of hundred of artisans and workers to execute. Three years ago, before his most recent troubles, Ai’s enlistment of group work to create an installation called “Sunflower Seeds,” embodies his collective spirit (once an imperative of Maoist philosophy). The process itself is seen in the detailed documenting of this artwork, even as it was being created for a site-specific installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. In an homage to the centuries old tradition of the porcelain artisans of the city of Jingdezgen, Ai enlisted 1600 local crafts workers to hand manufacture over 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. The symbolism of the sunflower seed in Maoist culture is explained in this quote from the Tate Modern's website:
For the artist, sunflower seeds, a common street snack, carry associations with China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun with the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him. Yet he also remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of human compassion, an opportunity for pleasure, friendship and kindness during a time of extreme poverty and uncertainty. There are also contemporary resonances in the work, with its combination of mass production and traditional craftsmanship inviting us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geopolitics of cultural and economic exchange.
A documentary tracks this spectacular art piece, from the mining of the clay rock to its installation in October, 2010, in London’s South Bank Tate.
Exactly two years later, this last October, the Hirshhorn Museum, on D.C.’s National Mall, hosted a comprehensive retrospective of Ai’s work in their circular galleries. The artist, in the midst of feuding about his taxes, was prevented by authorities from traveling outside China, unable to attend his own opening. But even that did not deter this recent master of the Internet from getting his messages out in Twitter feeds. The PBS News Hour program broadcast a video walkthrough of the Hirshhorn exhibition; it offered a cultural/historical, political context for his photographic and sculptural work, some of early pieces recalling the “readymade” aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists of the 20s.
Shortly after the opening, I was in D.C. for a meeting of the National Film Preservation Board. The morning after, Carol and I walked over to the Hirshhorn to see the Ai Weiwei retrospective, titled According to What?
Our biggest surprise came on entering the gallery that contained no physical objects—just the long, running wall text of the names and dates of 5,385 school children who died in the school collapses of the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008, most of whom are believed to be victims of shoddy “tofu construction” by corrupt contractors and bribed government inspectors. An audio track reading of the students’ names was commissioned by Ai; it was made by hundreds of his fellow Chinese, a middle finger thrust out to the lackeys of authority who had tried to suppress any disclosure of the lost children’s names. The work is titled “Remembrance.”
On an adjoining gallery floor, arranged in a wave-like fan, lie some 38 tons of steel rebar his assistants retrieved from the school rubble, all of which they had straightened by hand. This installation, titled “Straight,” seems to embody the recumbent spirits of the dead children. Once made aware of the metaphor, it demands silent meditation, a rusted, totemic cenotaph.
The gallery installations are open and uncramped; the PBS video, with its sweeping camera, conveys a sense of the great spatial depth of the installation. The artworks are intercut with an interview of the artist in his Beijing studio.
This year’s DGA nominated documentary feature, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, by Alison Klayman concentrates less on Ai’s artifacts and more on his recent battles with the Chinese government; its scenes document some of his street “provocations” of police authority as well as the reverential support of his young admirers.
Klayman’s film, a true cri de coeur made over three years, highlights the issue of Ai’s struggle for creative expression in today’s China. But it is an all-together different documentary that casts his work in the larger historical context of postwar China’s traumas, and in those of his own family’s persecution by the forces of the so-called “Cultural Revolution.” A BBC 1 series, Imagine, broadcast a 50-minute capsule history of Ai Weiwei’s and his generation’s slow march toward creative freedom. It is titled Without Fear or Favor. For a Westerner, unfamiliar with the turbulent Chinese history of the 60s, this film makes for compelling viewing. I suggest bookmarking it for when you have time to watch it at a single sitting. It is an absorbing window into where today’s schizophrenic China came from.
How all of this may come to critical mass for Ai remains speculative. From the outside, it appears as if the forces of government have severely curtailed his ability to interact with the Western art world. However, his work of the past decade has, nevertheless, redefined the possibilities of personal artistic expression within the larger socio/political context of his rapidly changing homeland.
This kind of art activism has been largely moribund in Western democracies since the 60s and early 70s, as many of our artists have become absorbed with the ephemeral markers of pop culture (think Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst), and have become media-intoxicated fashionistas. Half a world away, beyond his personal concerns, Ai Weiwei’s urgent agenda for free expression in China, is a gauntlet thrown down to American artists—to reengage the unfinished business of art in forcefully addressing still unresolved societal issues.