ART FEBRUARY 1, 2013
Noble and Ignoble Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist
BY JED PERL
The London gallery has bought around eight million of the 100 million porcelain seeds, which covered the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010, for an undisclosed figure.
If Ai Weiwei, the much admired Chinese dissident artist, were a character in a novel, I would know exactly what to think about him. I would regard him as a fascination, at once formidable and absurd, courageous and disingenuous, unquestionably brilliant and downright moronic. I would take in stride the outlandish paradoxes that are integral to his reputation. I would cheer his stirring advocacy of the victims of Mao’s successors and recoil at the terrible brain injury he suffered at the hands of the Chinese police, while discerning a streak of ugly nihilism in some of his best-known artistic acts, such as smashing an antique pot for a photographic triptych titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and dipping Han dynasty vases in garishly colored industrial paint for a work known as Colored Vases. I would go wherever the novelist who had invented this fierce, funny, bearded, barrel-chested impresario wished to lead me, and in the end I would have a tremendous picture of a man with a quick mind, indomitable energy, and no particular aptitude for art.
I wish I could leave it there. But of course Ai Weiwei is anything but a fiction, and the contradictions between his life and his art—and perhaps within his art as well—are as real as real can be. He is currently the subject of a large exhibition called “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. My sense, at least on the weekday when I visited the show, was that visitors welcomed the opportunity to focus on the hardships of life in contemporary China as well as on Ai’s extraordinary courage as a social activist. Although some museumgoers may be surprised to discover that Ai often favors a chaste minimalist style as he spotlights some of the horrors visited upon the Chinese people by the country’s authoritarian regime, others will take the style in stride, regarding it as a generic documentary approach perfectly appropriate for Ai’s torn-from-the-headlines subject matter.
Certainly one need know nothing about Robert Morris and Donald Judd and the other 1960s artists from whom Ai takes many of his formal strategies to get the point of Straight. This arrangement of steel rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan, following the earthquake in 2008 that killed more than five thousand children, is strikingly austere. Ai has been an outspoken advocate for the children’s parents as they seek at least some modicum of justice. At times the Hirshhorn exhibition is close to pure documentary. There is a list of the names of the children who died in Sichuan posted on a wall. And Ai includes an ink-jet print of an MRI of his brain, after his beating by police in 2009. In the face of such facts, some will wonder if there is any point in discussing the art historical background or in determining exactly what belongs in an art museum. At this late date, wouldn’t only a philistine question whether a list of names or an MRI of a swollen brain counts as a work of art? A work of art is whatever anybody says it is. Why even bring it up?
I wish I could leave it at that. But the problem with simply saluting Ai as a political activist is that he insists on pleading his case in the art museums. The Hirshhorn exhibition—which originated at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009 and will conclude a five-city North American tour at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014—takes its title from a 1964 painting by Jasper Johns, According to What. The Ai Weiwei who admires the conundrums of Jasper Johns, that most beloved of contemporary aesthetes, is very much in evidence at the Hirshhorn in a work such as Surveillance Camera, a white marble simulacrum of one of the tools of the police state (which is also ubiquitous in democratic societies). Whatever the message Ai means to send with Surveillance Camera—and the Chinese autocrats certainly have many cameras trained on Ai—it is notable mostly as an example of made-to-order ironic neoclassicism, and for all intents and purposes it is indistinguishable from the marble rendering of a garbage can by the New York bad boy artist Tom Sachs. (Some may recall that Sachs got the gallerist Mary Boone into trouble a few years ago when he placed live ammunition in a vase in her gallery and invited visitors to take cartridges as souvenirs.) With Ai, one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinizing begins. At least that was what I found myself wondering at the Hirshhorn, where Ai marries his somber subject matter with a slyly luxurious less-is-more aesthetic. I suspect that this synthesis is part of what museumgoers find so satisfying about the show. Some visitors seem awfully pleased with themselves, as if by coming to see Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn they are doing the right thing and killing two birds with one stone: acquiring both art cred and political cred.
I admire Ai’s courage. As the son of a well-known poet who suffered enormously during the Cultural Revolution, he is perfectly aware of the dangers of confronting a powerful regime that has little or no interest in human rights. In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Ai was something of a political insider, working with the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design for the Bird’s Nest Stadium. But even before the Olympics opened, Ai had become an outspoken critic of the regime, using whatever partial protection his international fame accorded him at home to shed light on the darkest corners of contemporary China. Since then he has been hounded, investigated, jailed, and refused permission to leave the country, but not silenced.
In interviews, statements, and writings—many for a blog that he maintained from 2006 until 2009, when the Chinese government shut it down—Ai speaks with eloquence about the struggle for justice and the impossibility of developing an expansive cultural life in China while living under an authoritarian regime. Writing on his blog in 2006, Ai announced that “China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude, for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists.” These are stirring words, suggesting that in Ai’s view China remains more than a century behind the West, its cultural development hopelessly crippled by its economic and political systems. (The artist’s writings are collected in Ai Weiwei’s Blog, published by MIT Press in 2011. I find the new Weiwei-isms, from Princeton University Press, less satisfying, an ironic riposte to Mao’s Little Red Book.)
Ai’s meditations on the nature of modern culture can also sound strangely old-fashioned, their talk of “humanity” and “spirit” a bit fulsome to Western ears. And here we come to the poignancy of Ai’s situation. While Ai’s socially engaged art has emerged in a country where modernism has never taken hold, he finds his most responsive audience in the West, where the core principles of modern art–its fervor, its independence, its individualism–are increasingly imperiled. So Ai turns out to be both pre-modern and postmodern, which probably explains how neatly he fits into our current artistic free-for-all, uniting as he does an early modern evangelism and a postmodern irony. Invited to contribute to Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, Ai dreamed up Fairytale. This quintessential work of social engagement involved bringing to Kassel 1,001 Chinese citizens who under normal circumstances had little or no chance of ever leaving the country to spend some time in Germany. Were these Chinese citizens being turned into a living work of art–a kind of performance piece? Was Ai liberating them, or using them as pawns in his own bid for fame? The novelistic possibilities are endless, suggesting an exploration of the vanity of good works worthy of Dickens or Tolstoy.
With socially engaged art now a global phenomenon, some practitioners worry that the “activist art milieu” is all too often “simply digested by the conditions of power,” as Nato Thompson puts it in a new book, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011 (MIT Press). I imagine that Ai’s Fairytale might be open to this line of criticism. In the context of the localized cottage-industry character of a lot of socially engaged art, Ai has set himself apart by taking as his canvas a country even larger than Russia, which was in some sense the very starting point for modern political art, when once upon a time Tatlin, Malevich, and El Lissitzky imagined that they might unite radical art and radical politics. Remembering how the Russian avant-garde was crushed by Lenin and then expunged by Stalin, Ai’s supporters can hail him as the inheritor of the socially engaged avant-garde, now rising against the inheritors of Mao’s China.
Which is not to say that Ai will not meet some resistance on the left, where his taste for the bold gesture may not sit entirely easily with those who disdain the international art world’s addiction to spectacle. The Hirshhorn has recently purchased Ai’s more than thirteen-foot-high Cube Light, which, with its row upon row of jazzily back-lit gold-toned crystals, suggests the retro-glam décor for an upscale bar or nightclub. While a wall label explains that Cube Light “interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition,” it seems to me that the only reasonable response to this caramel colored concoction is to order a martini and make it extra dry. I confess that Ai lost me completely with Cube Light, part of what the people at the Hirshhorn refer to as his “celebrated chandelier series.” The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.
Ai is probably at his best when he works as a designer, considering form in its social aspect. From what one can gather from photographs, the studio that he designed and built for himself in Shanghai—which the authorities bulldozed in 2011—was eloquently straightforward, in a style reminiscent of some of Judd’s architectural works, of which Ai is surely aware. In recent years, one of the most attractive aspects of Ai’s activity has been his engaging various craftspeople—especially workers in wood and ceramic—to create works that Ai designs but hands over to others to produce, in keeping with tried and true post-Duchampian practice. At times he suggests a Dadaist William Morris, corralling skilled woodworkers to make absurdist constructions out of antique tables, stools, and doors, or overseeing the creation of millions of tiny porcelain sunflower seeds that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2010—the seeds evoking the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese people were said to be sunflowers turning toward Mao even as the seeds themselves provided much needed nourishment.
When Ai, who as a boy lived through the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, dreams up projects for skilled workers, he seems to be designing the monuments for a luxurious utopia, with his Moon Chest (elegant boxes with openings related to the phases of the moon) and Map of China (a construction of salvaged wood from Qing Dynasty temples). He has long been something of a collector, a frequenter of antiques markets in China. And his work often has a curatorial character, the gathering together (or the purposeful distortion or transformation) of found objects, or of objects made to his specifications that he regards in the spirit of Duchamp and his readymades. “My work is always a readymade,” Ai has said. Such readymades, he argues, “could be cultural, political, or social, and also it could be art—to make people re-look at what we have done, its original position, to create new possibilities. I always want people to be confused, to be shocked or realize something later.”
Whatever the admirable consistency of Ai’s stand against the Chinese regime, when it comes to art he is a little too fond of jokes and ironies that have a way of multiplying into inanities. Could it be that the 1,001 Chinese citizens he brought to Documenta were somehow regarded as readymades? And to the objection that nearly everything he has done seems a version of something already done by an American artist—whether his boxes that suggest Judd’s boxes, or his ambiguous furniture that suggests Richard Artschwager’s furniture, or his piled pieces of steel rebar that bring to mind Robert Morris and Carl Andre—would he reply that this is precisely his point, that the American “original” idea becomes for him a readymade? And when he breaks or otherwise transforms what we are told are genuine antiquities, is this his version of what Duchamp once called a “readymade aided”?
I have no idea what to make of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. This is a set of twelve animal heads representing the signs of the zodiac, realized in editions in bronze and in bronze with a gold patina. Ai closely based the heads on originals, some of them lost, made in the eighteenth century for the pleasure palace of the Qianlong Emperor, by Jesuits living in China. (A substantial book about the project, Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, was published in 2011.) Once part of an elaborate water garden that was left in ruins after the Opium Wars, the site on the outskirts of Beijing was a haunt for bohemians when Ai was a young man. (Two of the original heads have in more recent times been in the news, included in an auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent.) Ai, on his blog in 2009, had some rather scathing things to say about the originals, arguing that they “are not Chinese culture and they have no artistic value.”
So why, you might ask, did he go to the trouble of creating replicas or reconstructions of these heads, which have now been exhibited in London, New York, and Washington? Asked more recently about the project, Ai had this to say: “Because the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is animal heads, I think it’s something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world. I think it’s more important to show your work to the public. That’s what I really care about. When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don’t think many people understood Mao, either—it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that—like Mickey Mouse. They’re just animals.” Ai may be a hero when it comes to speaking out for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, but when he talks about his art he is jeeringly manipulative. It is hard to have patience for an artist who justifies his work with references to Mickey Mouse.
Much of the fascination of a substantial survey of an artist’s work consists in the ways it deepens our understanding of origins and evolutions, but the Hirshhorn exhibition offers only the sketchiest sense of Ai’s early years. The problem may be that his artistic beginnings are pathetically thin, at least that is what I surmise from the little early work included here and what I have seen in reproductions. As a young man Ai spent a decade in New York, from 1983 to 1993, returning to China when his father became ill. At the Hirshhorn a good deal of space is given to photographs he took while hanging out in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side, and they are nothing more than the snapshots of a somewhat aimless fellow: he meets Allen Ginsberg, witnesses the Tompkins Square Park riots, passes the time with friends from back home.
One work from those years that has received some attention—although it is not in the Hirshhorn show—is a wire coat hanger that Ai manipulated so as to replicate the profile of Marcel Duchamp as seen in his Self-Portrait in Profile. What other work there is from the 1980s strikes me as only more of this highly diluted Dadaism: Château Lafite, a bottle encased in two shoes; a book with a half of a shoe attached to it; a violin with two shoes clamped to its body; and another violin with its neck replaced by the handle of a shovel. Is the shovel an homage to Duchamp’s readymade that consists of a snow shovel? Does the violin have something to do with Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres? Or with the French artist Arman’s interest in violins? Whatever the answers, Ai’s Dadaism never strikes with a personal force, the way Robert Gober’s sometimes does. The work is pale and derivative, after which it becomes loud and political without ceasing to be pale and derivative.
Although Ai is a darling of journalists and editorialists around the world, his work may be a little overly explicit for some connoisseurs of late modernism or postmodernism, better suited to Art and America and The New York Times than to the pages of October. I suspect that many museum professionals in Europe and the United States who have supported Ai’s projects also regard him with a slight condescension, as something of an artistic naïf, albeit an extraordinarily self-possessed naïf. His paradoxes lack the house-of-mirrors richness that is admired in Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture videos, in Cindy Sherman’s recent photographs of aging upper-class suburban housewives, and in William Kentridge’s scratch-pad films. There is much that is blunt and programmatic about Ai’s ideas about the relationship between art and social action, which perhaps explains his appeal for the audience that only occasionally goes to museums and galleries and so admired his millions of sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
For Ai, there is not even a question as to whether the artist can simultaneously be a social activist, because art is not a separate arena with its own laws and logic. All actions, whether compiling a list of children killed in an earthquake or dipping Han dynasty vases in industrial paint, are related in that they are expressions of “creativity.” Creativity, Ai explained in a blog post in 2008, “is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one’s imagination—perhaps more importantly—creativity is the power to act.” What is lost in this talk about creativity and action is the ancient requirement that a work of art be realized in a particular medium. That does not seem to matter to Ai. Asked by an interviewer whether the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at Tate Modern “relate[d] back to China,” he argued that “mass production is nothing new. Weren’t cathedrals built through mass production? The pyramids? … Paintings can be painted with the left hand, the right hand, someone else’s hand, or many people’s hands. The scale of production is irrelevant to its content.” This is an extraordinary comment. If the scale of a work and the way the work is produced are irrelevant to its meaning or its content, then what on earth is a work of art? Isn’t a work of art by its very nature a matter of particulars, of size and scale, of who does what and how?
When Ai complains that China has never developed a modernist culture, he surely regards himself as an exception. But the crudity with which he connects creativity with action and action with art reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of modern art, and indeed of all art, that is as pervasive in democratic societies as it is in countries with authoritarian regimes. Artistic crudity knows no national borders, and while I would never discount the importance of the freedom to create whatever an artist wants, I would insist that art proceeds according to laws that politics can at times thwart or control but never fully contain or comprehend. It is tempting to say, in summing up “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” that I admire the politics and am left cold by the art, but that lets the art off too easily. When Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind of political kitsch. It is not the kind with muscular working men that Stalin and Mao preferred, but it is kitsch nonetheless—postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause.
The political causes that Ai embraces are noble. This cannot be said often enough. But when he takes his place inside the Hirshhorn Museum, with its Matisses and Brancusis and Mondrians, I cannot help but feel that he poses a threat to the artistic universe he dreams of inhabiting. This is not a question of left versus right, or of communist versus capitalist, or of political art versus art for art’s sake. It is a question of what an artist is actually doing when he makes a work of art. I am reminded of something that John Berger, himself a fervent leftist, wrote in 1978 in an essay called “The Work of Art,” arguing against a rigid Marxist interpretation of art: “When a painter is working he is aware of the means which are available to him—these include his materials, the style he inherits, the conventions he must obey, his prescribed or freely chosen subject matter—as constituting both an opportunity and a restraint. By working and using the opportunity he becomes conscious of some of its limits. These limits challenge him, at either an artisanal, a magical or an imaginative level. He pushes against one or several of them.” Berger is writing about a painter, but what he says holds true for any artist. What never happens in Ai’s work is this pushing against limits, this sense of the means as constituting an opportunity and a restraint. With Ai, the means are purely instrumental, just a way to get to an end.
The trouble with most critiques of political art is that they pay too much attention to the politics. This is not to say that an artist’s politics do not matter; not at all. But the great challenge today, at least for those who find themselves in a museum wanting to take full advantage of what an art museum has to offer, is how deeply the artist is exploring the means that are available. Therein lies artistic freedom. As an artist, Ai Weiwei remains imprisoned, unable to speak in the language of forms, which is the only language an artist can really know. A novelist might make something exciting out of Ai’s predicament. But Ai, as I say, is not a character in a novel. He is a man who makes works of art. They are bone-chillingly cold, the thoughts or attitudes of a great political dissident who remains untouched by even a spark of the imaginative fire.
So what is it about Ai? What makes him, in Western eyes, the world’s “most powerful artist”? The answer lies in the West itself. Now obsessed with China, the West would surely invent Ai if he didn’t already exist. China may after all become the most powerful nation in the world. It must therefore have an artist of comparable consequence to hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential. Ai (his name is pronounced eye way-way) is perfect for the part. Having spent his formative years as an artist in New York in the 1980s, when Warhol was a god and conceptual and performance art were dominant, he knows how to combine his life and art into a daring and politically charged performance that helps define how we see modern China. He’ll use any medium or genre—sculpture, ready-mades, photography, performance, architecture, tweets and blogs—to deliver his pungent message.
Ai’s persona—which, as with Warhol’s, is inseparable from his art—draws power from the contradictory roles that artists perform in modern culture. The loftiest are those of martyr, preacher and conscience. Not only has Ai been harassed and jailed, he has also continually called the Chinese regime to account; he has made a list, for example, that includes the name of each of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 because of shoddy schoolhouse construction. At the same time, he plays a decidedly unsaintly, Dada-inspired role—the bad boy provocateur who outrages stuffed shirts everywhere. (In one of his best-known photographs, he gives the White House the finger.) Not least, he is a kind of visionary showman. He cultivates the press, arouses comment and creates spectacles. His signature work, Sunflower Seeds—a work of hallucinatory intensity that was a sensation at the Tate Modern in London in 2010—consists of 100 million pieces of porcelain, each painted by one of 1,600 Chinese craftsmen to resemble a sunflower seed. As Andy would say, in high deadpan, “Wow.”
This year Ai is the subject of two shows in Washington, D.C., an appropriate backdrop for an A-list power artist. In the spring, “Perspectives: Ai Weiwei” opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with a monumental installation of Fragments (2005). Working with a team of skilled carpenters, Ai turned ironwood salvaged from dismantled Qing-era temples into a handsomely constructed structure that appears chaotic on the ground but, if seen from above, coalesces into a map of China. (Fragments embodies a dilemma characteristic of Ai: Can the timber of the past, foolishly discarded by the present, be recrafted into a China, perhaps a better China, that we cannot yet discern?) And the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will present a wide-ranging survey of Ai’s work, from October 7 to February 2013. The exhibition title—“According to What?”—was borrowed from a Jasper Johns painting.
The question that is not often asked is whether Ai, as an artist, is more than just a contemporary phenom. Is Sunflower Seeds, for example, more than a passing headline? Will Ai ultimately matter to China—and to the future—as much as he does to today’s Western art world?
Ai lives in Caochangdi, a village in suburban Beijing favored by artists, where, like an art-king in exile, he regularly greets visitors come to pay homage to his vision of a better China. A large, burly man with a fondness for the neighborhood’s feral cats, Ai, who is 55, is disarmingly modest for one who spends so much time in the public eye. He recently told Christina Larson, an American writer in Beijing who interviewed the artist for Smithsonian, that he remains astonished by his prominence. “The secret police told me everybody can see it but you, that you’re so influential. But I think [their behavior] makes me more influential. They create me rather than solve the problems I raise.”
The authorities keep him in the news by, for example, hounding him for tax evasion. This past summer, during a hearing on his tax case—which he was not allowed to attend—his studio was surrounded by about 30 police cars. The story was widely covered. In 2010, he established a studio in a proposed arts district in Shanghai. The regime, fearing it would become a center of dissent—and claiming the structure violated a building code—destroyed it early in 2011. According to Ai, “It made every young person who may or may not have liked me before think I must be some kind of hero.”
Ai lives well enough, even under house arrest, but there’s little about him that’s extravagant or arty. His house, like many in the district, is gray and utilitarian. The neighborhood doesn’t have much street or café life; it’s the sort of place, one Beijing resident said, where people go to be left alone. His courtyard home consists of two buildings: a studio and a residence. The studio—a large space with a skylight—has a gray floor and white walls and seems much less cluttered than other artist studios. Both the studio and the residence have a neutral air, as if they have not yet been filled, but are instead environments where an artist waits for ideas, or acts on impulse, or greets cats and visitors. Like Andy Warhol, Ai always has a camera at hand—in his case, an iPhone—as if he were waiting for something to happen.
His life seems steeped in “befores” and “afters.” Before the modern era, he says, China’s culture had a kind of “total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, moral understanding and craftsmanship.” In ancient China, art could become very powerful. “It’s not just a decoration or one idea, but rather a total high model which art can carry out.” He finds a similar and transcendent unity of vision in the work of one of his favorite artists, van Gogh: “The art was a belief that expressed his views of the universe, how it should be.”
His more immediate before, however, is not ancient China but the totalitarian culture into which he was born. Ai’s father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, ran afoul of the regime in the late ’50s and he and his family were sent to a labor camp. He spent five years cleaning toilets. (Ai Qing was exonerated in 1978 and lived in Beijing until his death in 1996.) To Ai Weiwei, there was also another, less personal kind of emptiness about the China of before. “There were almost no cars on the street,” he said. “No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces. After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.”
In 1981, when it became possible for Chinese citizens to travel abroad, Ai made his way to New York. His first glimpse of the city came on a plane in the early evening. “It looked like a bowl of diamonds,” he said. It was not the city’s material wealth that attracted him, however, but its dazzling freedom of action and speech. For a time Ai had an apartment near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where young Chinese artists and intellectuals often gathered. But he had no particular success as an artist. He worked odd jobs and spent his time going to exhibitions. The poet Allen Ginsberg, whom he befriended, told Ai that galleries would not take much notice of his work.
Although he has a special interest in Jasper Johns, Warhol and Dada, Ai is not easily categorized. He has a wandering mind that can embrace very different, sometimes contrary, elements. The same artist who loves the transcendental oneness of van Gogh, for example, also admires the abstruse and sometimes analytical sensibility of Johns. Much of Ai’s best-known work is rooted in conceptual and Dadaist art. He has often created “ready-mades”—objects taken from the world that an artist then alters or modifies—that have a strong satirical element. In one well-known example, he placed a Chinese figurine inside a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch. Yet in contrast to many conceptual artists, he also demonstrated, early on, a keen interest in a work’s visual qualities and sent himself to study at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York.
Ai’s interest in design and architecture led him, in 2006, to collaborate with HHF Architects on a country house in upstate New York for two young art collectors. The house is four equal-sized boxes covered on the outside in corrugated metal; the small spaces between the boxes permit light to suffuse the interior, where the geometry is also softened by wood and surprising angles. The award-winning design is both remarkably simple and—in its use of light and the grouping of interior spaces—richly complex.
But Ai’s interest in design and architecture has less to do with being a conventional architect than with rebuilding—and redesigning—China itself. Returning to China in 1993, when his father fell ill, he was discouraged by two new forms of oppression: fashion and cronyism. “Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to get rich,” he said, adding that those who succeeded did so through their affiliation with the Communist Party. “I could see so many luxury cars, but there was no justice or fairness in this society. Far from it.” New consumer goods such as tape recorders brought fresh voices and music into a moribund culture. But rather than struggle to create independent identities, Ai said, young people instead settled into a new, easy and fashion-driven conformity. “People listened to sentimental Taiwanese pop music. Levi’s blue jeans came in very early. People were seeking to be identified with a certain kind of style, which saves a lot of talking.”
Ai responded to the new China with scabrous satire, challenging its puritanical and conformist character by regularly showcasing a rude and boisterous individuality. He published a photograph of himself in which he is shown naked, leaping ludicrously into the air, while holding something over his genitals. The photo caption—“Grass mud horse covering the middle”—sounds in spoken Chinese like a coarse jest about mothers and the Central Committee. He formed a corporation called “Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.” He mocked the Olympic Games, which, in China, are now a kind of state religion. The CCTV tower in Beijing, designed by the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is regarded with great national pride; the Chinese were horrified when a fire swept through an annex and a nearby hotel during construction. Ai’s response? “I think if the CCTV building really burns down it would be the modern landmark of Beijing. It can represent a huge empire of ambition burning down.”
Ai’s resistance to all forms of control—capitalist and communist—manifests itself in one poignant way. He refuses to listen to music. He associates music with the propaganda of the old days and prefers the silent spaces of independent thought. “When I was growing up, we were forced to listen to only Communist music. I think that left a bad impression. I have many musician friends, but I never listen to music.” He blames the Chinese educational system for failing to generate any grand or open-ended sense of possibility either for individuals or the society as a whole. “Education should teach you to think, but they just want to control everyone’s mind.” What the regime is most afraid of, he says, is “free discussion.”
Ai will occasionally say something optimistic. Perhaps the Internet will open up the discussion that schools now restrain, for example, even if the blog he ran has been shut down. For the most part, though, Ai’s commentary remains bleak and denunciatory. Few people in China believe in what they are doing, he says, not even the secret police. “I’ve been interrogated by over eight people, and they all told me, ‘This is our job.’…They do not believe anything. But they tell me, ‘You can never win this war.’”
Not soon anyway. In the West, the artist as provocateur—Marcel Duchamp, Warhol and Damien Hirst are well-known examples—is a familiar figure. In a China just emerging as a world power, where the political authorities prize conformity, discipline and the accumulation of riches, an artist working in the provocative Western tradition is still regarded as a threat. Chinese intellectuals may support him, but the Chinese generally have no more understanding of Ai than a typical American has of Duchamp or Warhol. “There are no heroes in modern China,” Ai said.
The West would like to turn Ai into a hero, but he seems reluctant to oblige. He lived in postmodern New York. He knows the celebrity racket and the hero racket. “I don’t believe that much in my own answer,” he said. “My resistance is a symbolic gesture.” But Ai, if not a hero, has found ways to symbolize certain qualities that China may one day celebrate him for protecting and asserting. Free discussion is one. An out-there, dark and Rabelaisian playfulness is another. But the most interesting quality of them all is found in his best works of art: a prophetic dream of China.
Much of Ai’s art is of only passing interest. Like so much conceptual art, it seems little more than a diagram of some pre-conceived moral. Art with a moral too often ends with the moral, which can stopper the imagination. Consider Ai’s amusing and well-known Johnnie Walker piece. Is it suggesting that China is enveloped within—and intoxicated by—Western consumer culture? Of course it is. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t have to think about it anymore. Jokes, even serious jokes, are like that. They’re not as good the second time around.
But several Ai works are fundamentally different in character. They’re made of more than morals and commentary. They’re open-ended, mysterious, sometimes utopian in spirit. Each calls to mind—as architecture and design can—the birth of the new. The oddest instance is the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of the 2008 Olympics. While an impassioned critic of the propaganda around the Olympics, Ai nonetheless collaborated with the architects Herzog & de Meuron in the design of the stadium. What kind of China is being nurtured, one wonders, in that spiky nest?
According to Ai, governments cannot hide forever from what he calls “principles” and “the true argument.” He decries the loss of religion, aesthetic feeling and moral judgment, arguing that “this is a large space that needs to be occupied.” To occupy that space, Ai continues to dream of social transformation, and he devises actions and works that evoke worlds of possibility. For the 2007 Documenta—a famous exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany—Ai contributed two pieces. One was a monumental sculpture called Template, a chaotic Babel of doors and windows from ruined Ming and Qing dynasty houses. These doors and windows from the past seemed to lead nowhere until, oddly enough, a storm knocked down the sculpture. His second contribution was a work of “social sculpture” called Fairytale, for which he brought 1,001 people from China—chosen through an open blog invitation—to Documenta. He designed their clothes, luggage and a place for them to stay. But he did not point them in any particular direction. On this unlikely trip through the woods, the Chinese pilgrims might find for themselves a new and magical world. They too might discover, as Ai did when he went to New York, “a bowl of diamonds.”
Sunflower Seeds, his most celebrated work, yields similar questions. The painting of so many individual seeds is a slightly mad tour de force. But the scale of the work, which is at once tiny and vast—raindrop and ocean—seems no crazier than a “Made in China” consumer society and its bottomless desires. Does the number of seeds reflect the dizzying amount of money—millions, billions, trillions—that corporations and nations generate? Do the seeds simultaneously suggest the famines that mark Chinese history? Do they evoke China’s brief moment of cultural freedom in 1956 known as the “Hundred Flowers Campaign?” Do they represent both the citizen and the nation, the individual and the mass, endowing both with an air of germinating possibility? Will China ever bloom, one wonders, with the joyful intensity of van Gogh’s sunflowers?
Christina Larson in Beijing contributed reporting to this story
by Greg Lindquist and Mary Mattingly
Mami Kataoka, Kerry Brougher, Charles Merewether
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
(Prestel Verlag, 2012)
Visitors to the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D. C. are offered two varied forms of learning additional information: a traditionally produced hardcover book ($39.95) and a double-stapled magazine format ($5). Beyond an omitted index and curriculum vitae, there is little difference in the less costly version other than distribution and physical constituent parts. You can only purchase the magazine format at the exhibition. Is there a preference? According to a museum shop employee, the hardcover has sold approximately 500, while the magazine, says the Hirshhorn press officer, has been reordered after exceeding the expectation of selling the initial printing run of 10,000. All of this is to say that the exhibition is extraordinarily popular and timely . The catalog formats readily evoke the complexities of information flow between the United States and China, and may be seen as modeled after Ai Weiwei’s collaborative underground distribution of Black, White and Grey cover artist books in the Chinese art world in the late 1990s. Greg Lindquist and Mary Mattingly read the catalogue before visiting the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition.
Greg Lindquist: Ai Weiwei’s angular, blocky forms of American Minimalism seem to rely on a recontexualization with China’s cultural histories. For example, Ai Weiwei uses a cube made of rosewood, a favored material of traditional Chinese artisans, or arranges glass crystals into a cube of light. Both recall formal strategies used by Donald Judd, among others.
You have some misgivings about the role of these forms in relationship to American art history and culture. Do you think these sculptures are pandering to our nostalgia for this time in art history or our cultures’ love for the perfection of this Ikea-like reductionist design?
Mary Mattingly: Yes, I found this work to be heavily dependent on our knowledge of the work of artists like Judd, Andre, Holt, and Morris, to name a few. Perhaps Ai Weiwei saw it as a way for the art world to couch the political content and charged materials he uses in art. Or maybe it was a response to China’s own process of industrialization (as Minimalism is said to be partly a response to industrialized factory production in the U.S.). Critical to understanding the politics of Minimalism are the questions that were being asked through the works of participating artists about assembly-line fabrication and materiality through increasing mass production in the U.S. and the Vietnam War.
Unlike past works by Ai Weiwei (such as “Sunflower Seeds,” 2010) where the relationship between forms of production, material, and the message of his work resonate with me, I had to reconcile the use of Minimalist tropes with materials that are steeped in dynastic histories or tragic current events. Ai Weiwei’s work in this exhibition becomes formally reliant on these tropes and therefore disconnected from the potent meaning of his materials and the stories behind them.
I don’t think that you felt this way. I think you wanted to come away with the greater messages of his work and therefore didn’t get caught up in the same details I did, would you agree?
Lindquist: I experienced the forms and the content simultaneously without as much conflict about the derivation you speak of. Broadly, Minimalism was as much about artists exerting the power of a physical object as it was about a search for ideal forms and purity. It was about removing the narrative from the experience of the object, as well as emphasizing formal elements of repetition and symmetry. Of course, the deeper one goes in examining Minimalism, the more contradictions and complexities are imminent.
Yet, for these reasons, Ai Weiwei’s homage to Minimalism is an effort of recontexualization and strategy in order to critically question tradition in China. He also intends to fully reinstate narrative to these geometric forms. I think it was the most successful the more immediate the viewer’s relationship to the material and its inherent narrative. For example, “Snake Ceiling,” (2009) the sculpture memorializing with almost identical backpacks the more than 5,000 students who died in the Sichuan earthquake, was extremely powerful. Also, “Teahouse,” (2011) the Monopoly-like cube of compressed tea, was pan-sensory. You could actually smell it as well as physically and visually experience it.
Even more formidable were Ai’s various attempts to destroy or transform various authentic vase and urn artifacts. Whether he was breaking them or painting them with Coca-Cola labels, they were visceral and offensive, an act of cultural defiance. The works are more immediate the more transparent the signifiers are, too. But, maybe also the most memorable work Ai has done has no centralized form, such as “Fairytale,” (2008) in which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Germany for Documenta 12.
On the other hand, the work that felt the most flaccid was “Moon Chest,” 2008, which was a clever contemplation of lunar phases, but so politely stated and overtly crafted with intricate inlays. It resembles a lot of work prevalent in recent New York institutional shows. Ai’s woodwork on the inner ring of the Hirshhorn seamlessly blended into the museum’s permanent collection. At one point, I mistook a Barbara Hepworth sculpture for another Ai work, which was a problematic aspect of presentation.
Having acknowledged your skepticism, can you say what work had the most impact and why?
Mattingly: When political artwork such as this is institutionalized and purchased by U.S. museums I can’t avoid being more interested in the current power dynamics between the U.S. and China and, furthermore, the back seat democracy inherently takes to capitalism. The object-based work in the exhibition is heavily reliant on Ai Weiwei’s stories of political activism and tragedies in China. While the personal stories behind his work are alarming, powerful, and even empowering, I wasn’t moved by the work itself. My favorite piece in the exhibition itself was the book documenting his blog, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006 – 2009 a window into the life of Ai Weiwei through blog entries (until it was shut down by the government in 2009), which brings his activism to the forefront.
Lindquist: Wait, that book was in the exhibition?
Mattingly: Yes, in the inner ring on a table with other catalogues.
The According to What? catalogue was more thorough than the exhibition could be, though. It depicted pieces like “Installations for Venice Biennale” in 2008 (in collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron), and “Through,” (2007 – 08) with tables and parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty: abstract interpretations of architecture gone wrong that were experiential and impactful, as well as a brief description of “Fairytale” at Documenta. The catalogue also documents two collections of fragments of stone Buddha sculptures the artist amassed in 2003 titled “Hands” and “Feet” from the Northern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasty displayed on thick blocks of wood, poetic and understated.
What did you enjoy most about reading the essays and interviews inside of the exhibition catalogue?
Lindquist: In re-reading much of the text after the show and our debates about the role of Minimalism, I grew tired of the overt imposition of the American art historical narrative on Ai’s work, which tried to also align with the time he spent in New York in the 1980s. As the photographs attest, this time had little to do with Minimalism of the 1960s and reveal more of the political climate of that time. The catalogue also downplays the influence of Dada and the idea of postmodern appropriation.
At the heart of the catalogue was an Ai interview with Kerry Brougher that was excellent. The interview was so dense and potent that the Hirs hhorn reconfigured it into an artist statement for the exhibition. Ai is serious and intense, and his voice is philosophical in tone and ambitious in scope. I was inspired by Ai’s discussion of the Internet as not only a tool, but also a condition of life that has much unrealized potential for art and political change.
Ai also has a good sense of humor, such as in the “Study of Perspective” series in which he extends his middle finger to the Eiffel Tower, White House, and Tiananmen Square. Of course, there are critical implications in each of those images, they are not simply one-line jokes. Maybe we Americans love that defiant attitude directed at ourselves and especially a t China. For example, in the political debate of the last election, both Obama and Romney agreed there was a need to have China play by certain economic rules of trade, but little acknowledgment of our continued dependency on China for manufacturing. In that sense, Ai Weiwei may be seen as a sort of American hero and martyr against Chinese oppression and censorship, but this posture also serves certain economic and political motivations for us.
Mattingly: I agree, he does claim to be a brand for liberal thinking and democracy and it does seem like his role could easily become that of a martyr figure for a United States wrestling with its own position as a superpower that needs China economically while being simultaneously undermining and wary . A conceptual thread running throughout the exhibition and catalogue is one of destruction and rebuilding, a cycle repeated anywhere there is opportunity for a rush of development, something that the housing boom in the United States shares with China’s megacities-to-be. Ruins are not nostalgic but rather the motivation for newer, larger building projects, cities, and in this case, artworks.
GREG LINDQUIST and MARY MATTINGLY are artists, readers, and writers who share a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They met at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exhibition space at Governors Island in 2010, thanks to Melissa Levin and Omar Lopez-Chahoud.