Ai Weiwei: Iconoclast, Activist, Artist or Jester?

Photo: Courtesy of Taschen

As the most recognized name in contemporary Chinese art, Ai Weiwei has attracted a great deal of media attention over the years. He first came to worldwide acclaim for his contribution to the design of the iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games — a contribution he later dismissed. In recent years, Ai Weiwei has earned even greater attention for his searing exploration of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, destruction of his Shanghai studio, and a four-year “house arrest” in Beijing that was only lifted in July 2015.

In the new book, simply titled Ai Weiwei (Taschen, 2016), essays by Ulli Sigg, Roger M. Buergel, Carlos Rojas, William A. Callahan, and James J. Lally explore his artistic legacy to date, alongside the political activism that continues to inform his art. Lavishly illustrated, the book includes images of Ai’s work, both finished and in progress, as well as an extensive selection of personal photographs of the artist and his circle.

As befits a monograph such as this, the focus is squarely on Ai throughout. Even his photos of friends and supporters are presented within the context of Ai documenting his world. To a certain extent, the book’s selection of non-art images suggests a man who is squarely the centre of his own universe. This focus comes across as rather touching, given that the iconoclastic artist has, for most of his life, been buffeted by circumstances beyond his control. 


Ai Weiwei, Pillar through Round Table, 2004–05, pair of elm wood half tables (Qing dynasty), Tieli wood pillar and two Tieli wood pillar fragments (Qing dynasty), 42 x 513 x 117 cm. Copyright: The artist, courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio/TASCHEN 

Laid out in roughly chronological order, the book opens with the essay, “The Better Argument,” by Ulli Sigg: art collector, former Swiss ambassador to China, and Ai’s friend since the mid-1990s. Sigg’s essay focuses primarily on the artist’s formation, from the exile of his poet father to China’s back-of-the-beyond, through his teenage years in Beijing, through his sojourn in New York City from 1981 to 1993, to his more recent career.

Written with the affection and insider knowledge of a friend, Sigg’s essay brings Ai’s personality to the fore, while also exploring the forces that made the artist who he is today. “For Ai,” writes Sigg of Ai’s time in New York City, “the most important attribute of the artist’s existence would henceforth be reason, which had failed to illuminate most anything in the cultural-revolutionary China of his youth, which again probably explains why he’s been practicing it so relentlessly ever since.”

The next essay is “The Mediator’s Ways” by Robert M. Buergel, Artistic Director of Documenta XII — site of Ai’s famous Fairytale (2007) — and current Artistic Director of the Busan Biennale in Busan, Korea. Buergel explores the juxtaposition of the traditional and contemporary in Ai’s work, from Tang Dynasty Courtesan in a Bottle (1994) to Coca-Cola Vase (2012), demonstrating an intriguing continuum of ancient China and the country as it is today.


Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 2008, Neolithic vase and paint, 45,4 cm x ø 36 cm. Copyright: The artist, courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio/TASCHEN 

Although clearly a fan of the artist and his work, Buergel is also a canny observer of Ai’s modus operandi. Describing a 1988 exhibition in which Ai transformed symbols of everyday life in China “into the modernist canon, whose language he had usurped,” Buergel writes, “To this day, it has still not become clear whether Ai actually speaks this language with body and soul and deep conviction, or whether he is faking it and deploying it as a vehicle.”

Exploring “Collective Creation and the Politics of Visibility” in Ai’s work, Carlos Rojas, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, focuses on the artist’s key interactions with others, and their impact on his work. Taking the astonishing Sunflower Seeds (2010) as just one example, Rojas notes the involvement of everyone from the artisans who created the 100 million ceramic seeds, to the later intervention of “seed thieves” who ultimately became part of a British exhibition in which each stolen seed was carefully displayed, along with information on how it had come to be filched.

Rojas also implies that work on the magnitude of Sunflower Seeds might not even be possible in a country other than China. “What is remarkable . . . is the degree to which the work’s significance is explicitly grounded on the enormous amount of human labour that went into its creation. In this respect, Sunflower Seeds may be seen as an inverse mirror of current debates over the morality of enterprises that avail themselves of China’s immense workforce.”

The penultimate essay about Ai’s art and work is the fascinating “The Art of Politics” by William A. Callahan, Professor of International Politics and China Studies at the University of Manchester. Toggling between the two prevailing opinions on Ai, Callahan writes, “He is a polarizing figure: people either love him as a human-rights activist, or loathe him for playing to the dissident-hungry western media that profits from criticizing China."


Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, three black-and-white prints, each 140 x 121 cm (detail). Copyright: The artist, courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio/TASCHEN

Callahan sees Ai as having a dual identity: Ai the Rebel and Ai the Jester. Ai the Rebel is famous for straddling the boundaries between art and politics. Ai the Jester, on the other hand, becomes something of a victim of his own game. “[We] should remember,” Callahan writes, “that jesters are never in control of the game.” Further describing Ai as deeply complex, Callahan acknowledges, “In the end, though, we have to recognize that these explanations only make sense when they are interrelated: Ai is both the rebel and the jester.” 

Rounding out the essays, James J. Lally explores the craft antecedents of Ai’s work. As an acknowledged Chinese art expert and gallerist, Lally is well-placed to provide context on the nearly priceless pair of dragon bowls smashed by Ai in a piece of performance art, the antique furniture bowdlerized into unusable beauty, and the painted-over Neolithic vases and urns, several of which now bear the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo. Of the latter, Lally notes, “this is one of a very common type of storage vessels made to hold grain or wine — it was as common in ancient China as a Coca-Cola bottle is today.” It is a brave attempt at providing a sop to those who remain appalled at Ai’s wanton destruction of antiquities in the name of art.

That, however, is the whole point of much of Ai’s Conceptual work. As the book takes pains to point out, Ai loves old things, and bemoans the disappearance of China’s built heritage in the name of progress. His smashing of bowls, repurposing of temple doors, and overpainting of ancient pottery are meant to call attention to this disappearance, while also poking a finger in the eye of the Chinese authorities he has long set himself against.


Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011–13, 6 dioramas, fiberglass and iron, each 377 x 198 x 153 cm, installation view. Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice 2013. Copyright: The artist, courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio/TASCHEN 

In the tug-of-war between art and hype, Ai comes across as a strange hybrid of Chinese ideas and preoccupations and the Western media savvy required of any important artist these days. Although all of his works can be readily understood by audiences of all stripes, they become that much richer if you know that — as in the unsettling S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011–2013), addressing Ai’s political detention — the word for the crabs crawling out of the toilet, hexie, sounds a lot like the word meaning “harmonious,” used frequently in Chinese President Hu Jingtao’s catchphrase, “harmonious society.” As Sigg notes, “To put it simply: while in a Western mind, according to our Cartesian binary logic, a thing is either this or that; in a Chinese mind that same thing may well be this and that at the same time.”

Between each essay section, there are quotations by the artist about his work and politics. One of these spreads features his Tree series, one of which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, and is currently on display in Gallery B105. Made from dead trees sourced from 100 locations in the mountains of Jiangxi, each tree is a careful reconstruction that, as Ai has said, has “all the details of a normal tree. At the same time, you’re not comfortable; there’s a strangeness there, an unfamiliarness.”

There are also extensive sections on key works in Ai’s oeuvre and key events in his life, including his studio in Caochangdi, the Sichuan Earthquake and Citizens’ Investigation, Documenta XII, and his detention and the FAKE Case. Covering each event before, during and after, these detailed chronologies also include press excerpts from various international outlets, offering a prismatic lens through which to view Ai’s work and artistic legacy. Rounding out the book is a timeline of Ai’s life, as well as what is surely one of the most extensive listings of publications on an artist ever included in a book like this.

Ai Weiwei. Copyright: Gao Yuan/TASCHEN  

It is also a beautiful book. Measuring the size of a small end table in both size and heft, this 600-page tome is printed on a semi-matte paper that serves the images perfectly. The three languages are also handled nicely, following after one another through the book’s major sections,with new illustrations each time, accompanied by unilingual captions. The only thing lacking is an index, which would come in handy in a book billed as a “comprehensive monograph.”

Given the period covered in the book, which ends just before Ai’s unexpected release from house arrest, most of the work and commentary it includes suggest a brilliant man caught, to a certain extent, in a net of his own making. Trapped by an international cheering section into the persona of an unbowed artist-hero giving the middle finger to anyone trying to silence him, Ai soon became known less for his outstanding works of Conceptual Art, and more for his political activism. “What will he do next?” became the question on everyone’s lips, followed by, “What will ‘they’ do in response?”

But, as the essays in Ai Weiwei note, there is more to the man than his message. Although Ai’s reputation as iconoclastic enfant terrible has overtaken him in recent years, this book shows that Ai deserves international acclaim every bit as much for work that includes Template (2007), Sunflower Seeds (2010), and his Tree series (2012). In the end, the success of any Conceptual Art rests in its combination of object and idea. In this regard, Ai Weiwei makes it clear that Ai is, by any standard, one of the most brilliant artists of our time.

Ai Weiwei is a trilingual (English, German and French) publication from Taschen, edited by Hans Werner Holzwarth and featuring essays by essays by Ulli Sigg, Roger M. Buergel and Carlos Rojas, William A. Callahan, and James J. Lally. The book is available from the National Gallery of Canada Boutique. Ai Weiwei’s Tree is currently on view in the National Gallery’s Contemporary Art Gallery B105.

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