Art is Politics is Ai Weiwei
Gao Yuan, Portrait of Ai Weiwei (October 2010). © Gao Yuan
In 2011, China’s Ai Weiwei made international headlines not for his art, but rather his incarceration at the hands of Chinese authorities under charges of tax evasion. For anyone watching Ai’s dramatic trajectory over the past half-decade—from advisor to architects Herzog and de Meuron on their design for the “Bird’s Nest” at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to one of the country’s most vociferous internal dissidents, assailing China’s record on human rights and taking it to task for poor oversight of building codes—it is difficult to take seriously the case that the artist’s arrest was purely economic. In the estimation of British art blogger Jonathan Jones, writing in his OnArt column for TheGuardian.com, Ai Weiwei is a hero: “the most important artist in the world right now, a visionary who is defying an entire political system”.
This opinion is widely shared, especially in the Western art world and its institutions. As another online columnist, BlouinArtInfo.com’s Joseph Henry, points out: “Following Ai’s arrest and stripping of travel rights, a mobilized art world threw itself into action, with petitions, protests, and creative actions backed by the complaints of major artists and state governments. For many, Ai has emerged as a walking testament to art’s capacity for resistance in the face of political oppression, in addition to the benefits such attention can have on one’s career”. This art-world galvanization was witnessed last year when Ai created an online “parody” of Korean pop sensation Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video. “Ai Weiwei does Gangnam Style” made passing reference to Ai's house arrest, as he is seen briefly dancing while swinging a pair of handcuffs.
Upon learning of the video, British art star Anish Kapoor immediately called up friends and colleagues to create his own Gangnam Style spoof “Gangnam for Freedom,” that to date has had just over 300,000 hits on Youtube. Kapoor's production is much more pointed and overt in its messaging on freedom of expression than “Ai Weiwei does Gangnam Style” (which was pulled from the Web in China shortly after it surfaced). In fact, a number of critics commented that Ai's parody lacked punch, or was at best an innocuous bit of fun from an understandably beleaguered figure letting off some steam.
Where Ai’s online credentials are less debated is in his use of Twitter to raise awareness of political matters in his home country. Using various routing techniques to bypass firewalls, he tweets from his handle @aiww to hundreds of thousands of followers inside and outside of the art world on a consistent and daily basis.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman’s compelling 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry explored the artist’s use of the social media tool, by which he offers play by play accounts of his habitual run-ins with Chinese officials, while also tweeting messages that undergird his philosophy with regards to the value of free expression in the world’s most populous nation. The closely monitored Chinese citizen articulated his thoughts on the issue most recently for a Canadian audience on the CBC radio program Q.
The on-air spot garnered headlines when Ai called out his compatriot, iconic actor Jackie Chan, for apparently claiming to have never heard of the famed contemporary artist: “He knows me very well,” said Ai. “He's very much a pro-government actor. And he's acted so extremely on the side of authority, which [has] already become laughable in the public's view”.
Whether inciting a war of words with a fellow countryman, or waging a war of attrition with a government that has his passport under lock and key, Ai Weiwei is well known for his will and desire to do battle (something also very well recounted in Klayman’s analysis).
From top to bottom: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009; Colored Vases, 2007-2010. Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver
But what about Ai’s long-held primary vocation, art-making? There, it would seem his battles are even broader. In the photographic triptych, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009)—on view in the current survey of the artist’s work at the AGO in Toronto, Ai Weiwei: According to What?—the artist confronts thousands of years of Chinese history with an iconoclastic act of destruction. Flanking his photographs are historical vases that have been “updated” with bright and surreptitiously confrontational dayglo paint colours. Each of these pieces—and many in the present retrospective, with North American stops in Miami, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C.—were created before Ai's arrest and mainstream journalistic exposure.
A lot has happened since 2011, and it is very difficult now to distinguish Ai Weiwei, contemporary artist, from Ai Weiwei, political activist. Indeed, some critics feel the notoriety of the latter may be distracting from the aesthetic integrity of the former. Jones, the British blogger already quoted above, goes so far as to ask if Ai Weiwei “is . . . actually an artist at all? Has his art vanished into the storm of polemic?”
Reviewing the According to What? exhibition when it was on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in the fall of 2012, seasoned New York Times arts critic Roberta Smith fought her own reservations over whether Ai’s vociferous message was getting in the way of the medium. “Tellingly,” Smith remarked, “the opening label of the Hirshhorn show identifies Mr. Ai as ‘one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists’ rather than one of its greatest or most original”. One of her conclusions in the review was that “he doesn’t make great art as much as make great use—amplified by digital technology—of the role of the artist as public intellectual and social conscience.”
In fairness, this is exactly what Ai Weiwei does, and he makes no bones about it. “Everything is Art, everything is politics,” reads a quotation attributed to the artist on the AGO's website for the show, right next to a statuesque portrait of him mugging characteristically with lighthearted warmth.
Snake Ceiling (2009)—a major sculpture that was installed at the AGO months prior to the opening of According to What? to drum up attention for the show—is a perfect example of when art and politics combine poignantly within Ai's oeuvre. Mounted and meandering on the ceiling of the gallery, the piece is created out of backpacks articulated into a serpentine form. Engaging, even potentially cute and fun, levity turns quickly to sobriety and even ire when it becomes apparent that the educational kit refers to children who died in school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2009–2010, Ai created a monumental outdoor installation titled Remembering for the exhibition So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, made of some 9,000 backpacks attached to the side of the museum's facade. Colourful and immense, the piece contained Chinese logograms relaying words from the mother of a seven-year-old who was killed in the tragic events of 2008: “she lived happily in this world for seven years”.
Ai Weiwei, Snake Ceiling (2009). Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver
“If self-publicity is an art, then he is a master and the Chinese Government his curator. It is a performance that serves both their purposes.” So wrote “shakinwilly” in response to Jonathan Jones’ OnArt blog piece. Seemingly written in spite, the commentary echoes a certain level of skepticism, even scorn, that has been accorded Ai Weiwei as his stock soars (both in terms of his fame and, quite literally, in the prices of his art, which have never been higher), in tandem with his squabbles with China's power-base. There can be less debate over the fact that Ai and his many sculptures, photographs, videos and installations give plenty to reflect upon and discuss.
Derogatory connotations aside, “shakinwilly” may be on to something in his commentary. Rather than a curator, however, I would stipulate the Chinese Government as a kind of un-credited collaborator; unwitting stately partners who show their true face through Ai Weiwei’s provoking and provocative oeuvre.