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Ai Weiwei: Locked Up, Shut Down & Headed to the AGO

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington October 7, 2012, to February 24, 2013

Friday, May 25, 2012
@swedishgurl: @aiww are you doing any art work?
@aiww: I am the artwork

The Chinese government locked him up, charged him with tax evasion, shut down his business and took away his passport, but Ai Weiwei is still dancing. Click on YouTube, and there he is, flailing his limbs Gangnam style, aping the equestrian dance moves made wildly popular by the Korean pop singer Psy. Dressed in a black suit and a hot pink T-shirt that accentuates his ample belly, the shaggy artist looks like a kid fooling around in his yard. That is, until he reaches into his jacket pocket, takes out a set of handcuffs and twirls them in the air like a lasso.

“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is the first North American retrospective devoted to the Chinese artist and dissident; it opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington in October and travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in August. The 55-year-old artist was not able to attend the Hirshhorn opening; although released in June 2011 following 81 days of detention, he can’t leave the country. His absence from the opening of his own exhibition, as many have observed, spoke more profoundly than his presence.

It seems the more the Chinese government tries to shut Ai Weiwei down, the bigger a hero he becomes—at least in the West. The handcuff-twirling scene in the Gangnam video—which has topped 1 million views and prompted fellow art star Anish Kapoor to film a solidarity version in London intercut with related actions in New York and elsewhere—is yet another example of his trademark irreverent, theatrical gamesmanship. His brilliant command of social media and Warholian grasp of the mechanics of celebrity have made him China’s most famous artist—perhaps the world’s.

The year 2012 was a banner one for the artist. In December, Princeton University Press published Weiwei-isms, a collection of pithy sayings whose format mimics Mao’s Little Red Book. A selection was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “A Dissident’s Tips for Survival.” His voice was seemingly everywhere, in prominent newspapers and magazines from the Economist to the New Yorker. On December 29, the New York Times published an article in which op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof described him as an “icon of resistance.” Alison Klayman’s acclaimed documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—a compelling portrait of a charismatic, driven individual—broadened his fan base even further when it was released in April.

Celebrated within the art world—but not dependent on its institutions to reach an audience—Ai Weiwei is his own brand of artist provocateur. As a self-appointed guerilla leader on the front-line battle for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression in China, Ai Weiwei comments, opines, performs and tweets to some 180,000 followers for the better part of each day. Although all mention of him is officially censored through the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” Chinese netizens can use foreign links and code phrases such as “the fat guy” to access the steady stream of subversion that flows from his Beijing computer.


The huge scope of the Ai Weiwei phenomenon poses a challenge for any museum attempting a conventional retrospective. In recent years, Ai Weiwei has conflated art, life and activism in a way that defies conventional categories. Hence his tweeted response to @swedishgurl: “I am the artwork.” He has gone so far as to downplay the object-making part of his practice as not very meaningful. His most famous recent work, 2010’s Sunflower Seeds, in which he transformed Turbine Hall at Tate Modern into a giant silo by filling it with 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds, was intended to be participatory rather than contemplative. Although his Beijing studio still produces luxury artifacts aimed at the international art market, dissident politics take up an increasing proportion of his time. Serpentine Gallery co-director of exhibitions and programs Hans Ulrich Obrist, author of Ai Weiwei Speaks, has likened his activism to social sculpture. In naming him the most powerful figure in the art world in 2011, Britain’s ArtReview magazine wrote that his “activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum.”

Although reviews of the Washington show have been favourable, most critics have noted that art alone doesn’t justify Ai Weiwei’s reputation. It’s not that the photographs, sculptures and installations works on display are bad. A few, large, clunky wooden sculptures (for example, 2006’s Kippe and 2008’s Moon Chest) might have been omitted, but, in general, the artworks are fluent in post-conceptual, post-minimal modalities, and they afford the pleasure in exquisite craftsmanship that is a hallmark of his aesthetic. The photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn from 1995 remains compelling, as does the equally iconic Study of Perspective series begun that same year, in which he flips the finger at famous monuments around the world, from the Eiffel Tower to Tiananmen Square. Other highlights include 3,200 pink porcelain river crabs so lifelike they appear to writhe in a disturbing, delicious heap (He Xie, begun in 2010); dozens of Qing-dynasty stools reconfigured by wizard carpentry into a Futurist-style arc that balances on three legs (2010’s Grapes); and an enormous, box-shaped chandelier made of thousands of golden glass crystals (2008’s Cube Light).

This touring exhibition, which originated with the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009, is enhanced in Washington by two works: One is 2010’s Circle of Animals, an imposing set of 12 bronze zodiac figures which command the outdoor courtyard facing the National Mall like mythological sentinels. The other, at the nearby Sackler Gallery, is the poetic and evocative Fragments from 2006, a pavilion-like structure intricately fashioned from ironwood, tables, chairs, beams and pillars from Qing dynasty (1644–1911) temples. (Neither is slated to be on view in Toronto, nor is Cube Light, which is a new acquisition of the Hirshhorn’s.)

The art is worth seeing, but the fact remains that the artist himself is more interesting than anything on display. Like stir-fry without the hot sauce, the vital kick of the man himself is missing. If he has, in fact, made a kind of art form out of activism, is it possible to explore that dynamic within the privileged zone of the museum? The Hirshhorn takes a stab at the bigger picture by presenting contextual material for the politically charged art he made after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, including a sight seldom seen in an artist’s retrospective: MRI scans of the brain hemorrhage that likely ensued from a police beating in Chengdu in 2009. Yet the blanket endorsement of Ai Weiwei as a made-in-America Chinese hero has its problems as well, particularly in its current politically charged site on the National Mall.


Ai Weiwei was born into notoriety. He was a baby when his father, the revolutionary poet Ai Qing, was denounced in the first “anti-rightist” campaign that began in 1957. As a result, the family was sent into long, harsh exile in remote Western provinces. Forced to clean public toilets, Ai Qing suffered public humiliation and attempted suicide. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the poet was “rehabilitated” and invited back to Beijing with his family. In 1981, Ai Weiwei, disillusioned by government crackdowns on the fledging avant-garde movement in Beijing, moved to New York. Over the next 12 years, he led a bohemian life in the East Village: he took art classes at Parsons School of Design, drew street portraits, played blackjack in Atlantic City, hung out with Allen Ginsberg, and discovered Western contemporary art.

The exhibition includes many walls of photographs from this formative period, suggesting that Ai Weiwei traces his aesthetic and political identity to New York, rather than to China. We see photos of early surrealist assemblages, such as a wire coat hanger shaped into a hook-nosed profile of Marcel Duchamp and filled with sunflower seeds (shades of the future!). We see his interest in public acts of dissent in his shots of AIDS protests and of anti-homelessness riots in Tompkins Square Park. We see a younger, slimmer Ai Weiwei posing in front of a large self-portrait of Andy Warhol in 1987, fingers to chin in imitation of his idol’s affectless cool. The hunger for fame is almost palpable.

Success was slow in coming. Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1993, apparently in response to his father’s illness (Ai Qing died in 1996). Not until 1995, when he was close to 40, did he start to distinguish himself as a conceptual artist. Then, as now, he wore many different hats. He supported himself as an antique dealer while playing an active role in Beijing’s post-Tiananmen arts underground. He helped disseminate New York–style aesthetics via underground publications and co-curated a controversial contemporary exhibition, titled “Fuck Off” in English, in 2000. He exhibited a flair for architecture in modernist designs for studio/homes based on a prototype he designed for himself in Caochangdi village area of Beijing.

Ai Weiwei emerged as an intriguing contrast of crudity and refinement: on one hand, the antiquarian whose deep respect for traditional Chinese craftsmanship is demonstrated in sculptures of increasing complexity and scale, made possible by factory-style production involving countless cabinet-makers, ceramicists, stone carvers and metal workers; on the other, the rude iconoclast who shatters a precious antique in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

Iconoclasm continues in the related, though less interesting, Duchampian series that Beijing curator Philip Tinari calls “ancient readymades”: old pots dipped in bright acrylic paints or embellished with the Coca-Cola logo. These works have been variously interpreted as a critique of the Cultural Revolution, a condemnation of the current regime’s destruction of heritage, or as adolescent vandalism. Given his love of mischief, one should not rule out the possibility, as Danielle Shang argued in the March/April issue of Yishu, that the supposedly antique vases are fake.


Political critique, always implicit in the art, became explicit once Ai Weiwei began writing his now famous blog in 2006. At first, he enjoyed surprising license from censorship. Some China observers interpreted his freedom as an optimistic sign of liberalization within the party. It was also thought that he enjoyed a measure of immunity as the princeling son of a revolutionary hero. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he pushed too far.

The massive earthquakes in Sichuan province in May 2008 radicalized him to a new degree. Among the estimated 68,000 dead were undisclosed numbers of children killed in the collapse of their public schools. Official corruption was blamed for the sub-standard construction of many schools, dubbed “tofu-dregs engineering” by the artist. Outraged by the official refusal to disclose the identities and numbers of victims, Ai Weiwei boycotted the August 2008 Beijing Olympics, although he had played a creative role as co-designer of the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium. (In a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to evoke the iconic structure which, ironically, came to symbolize national pride in the event, an entire gallery at the Hirshhorn has been papered from floor to ceiling with colour photographs of the building in various stages of construction.) Calling the Olympics an empty sham, he denounced artists associated with its lavish opening ceremonies, among them the celebrated film-maker Zhang Yimou (To Live, Raise the Red Lantern).

The earthquake inspired more than invective: he decided to throw himself and his camera-wielding entourage directly into the struggle for justice and transparency. On a visit to the zone, he was moved by the spectacle of small backpacks trampled in the muddy ruins, and he decided to reference these poignant mementoes of lost children in memorial installations. He organized a group of volunteers to conduct fieldwork to identify as many children by name as possible by speaking to victims’ families, who were purportedly intimidated into silence by the government; volunteers eventually documented more than 5,000 names. He wrote in a March 24, 2009 blog post, “I believe this is the responsibility of the living toward the dead: if it is not complete, the souls of the living could never be complete.” Two months later, the government shut down the blog.

In August 2009, Ai Weiwei travelled to Chengdu to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, an independent earthquake activist who was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. In the middle of the night, police broke down the door of his hotel room, and they kicked him in the head during an ensuing scuffle. As a likely result, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, for which he underwent emergency surgery in Munich a month later.

The exhibition in Washington devotes considerable space to Sichuan-related artwork. From the earthquake zone, there are heartbreaking photographs of flattened schools, as well as a quietly elegiac floor sculpture made of strips of rusty rebar salvaged from the ruins. A vast memorial features floor-to-ceiling lists of the 5,000 children’s names gathered by Ai Weiwei’s team; the names are also read aloud over public speakers. On the ceiling is a long, sinuous, coiling dragon fashioned from bright green interlinked backpacks, suggesting the cheery innocence of a schoolyard procession. Installed around the busy, transitional space of the main escalator well, the memorial is hampered to some extent by its location. A sequestered location would have served the purpose better.

The museum’s attempts to contextualize Ai Weiwei’s artworks in terms of his activism struck me as problematic. Adjacent to the backpack memorial is a gallery filled with Sichuan-related material—including the brain scans—which highlight his personal investment in the project. In a photo Ai Weiwei took of himself surrounded by police on the night of the fateful beating, the camera flash creates a halo-like burst of light above his head. Unfortunately, the emphasis on his personal martyrdom—which recalls the self-mutilating performances of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci—takes attention away from the children and their families. There is a disturbing sense in which an argument for his importance as an artist appears to be riding on the suffering of others.


Had the museum developed the theme of activism as performance through a considered examination of his relentless self-documentation and self-presentation over Twitter, YouTube and other sites, the exhibition might have added up to something interesting. What gets lost in this brief snapshot of one-man-against-the-system is a sense of the political, cultural and psychological complexity that attends acts of political resistance in China or anywhere else. When outside observers—myself included—applaud his wit and courage, we do so without knowing what, if anything, he is accomplishing to advance the causes he claims to promote.

Within China, Ai Weiwei is a polarizing figure. He is undoubtedly an inspiration to many seeking a more just and open society. Yet others have criticized his maverick style as a form of self-promotion targeted at the West. There is a sense in which we love Ai Weiwei because he looks and sounds like us: a handcuff-waving freedom fighter flipping the finger at authority. Yet in a culture where saving face is highly valued and dissent is traditionally expressed in coded terms, critics argue that his confrontational tactics are counterproductive—even “un-Chinese,” a criticism the artist acknowledged as partly just in a recent on-line interview with the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent Evan Osnos.

Among artists in China, Ai Weiwei is reportedly feared for his power to make or break reputations in the West. None of China’s senior artists spoke up for him when he was in jail, a failure of support that could be attributed to their cowardice or to his wilful alienation from his peers. In September 2012, he wrote a cranky article in the Guardian criticizing the exhibition “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery for being insufficiently political and for failing to address “pressing contemporary issues.” From an avowed champion of human rights, the lack of respect given to his fellow artists’ freedom of expression was disappointing.

Now riding the crest of international celebrity, Ai Weiwei has assumed the role of artist interpreter for a culture that few in the West understand—and many secretly fear. Here, the natural temptation to see the world in terms of us and them should be reason for caution. A museum exhibition that adheres to a conventional model, as this one does, is probably not the best place to raise or resolve sophisticated political arguments. In the end, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is about the art. Given the intrinsic interest of the works on display and the fascinating character of their maker, it cannot fail to reward attention.

A correction was made to this article on January 9, 2013. The original copy suggested that Circle of Animals and Fragments were the only works at the Hirshhorn not headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Another is Cube Light.

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valerie senyk says:

I have spent a fair amount of time in China, and have also followed Ai Weiwei’s work/celebrity status…This is an excellent article – intelligent and comprehensive. Thanks for a strong read!

Bob Ragland says:

Mr. Ai is an example of an artist who, prevails.
The more effort to thwart him, the more he succeeds.

Lucie says:

The Moon boxes may be clunky, like large cupboards, but the effect is poetic. There’s an elegiac, poetic aesthetic in many sculptures,including Kippe and China Log,that seems distinctly Chinese to me. I think he addresses both Chinese and Western traditions very successfully in his work. His statement that “so-called contemporary art is not a form but a philosophy of society” made sense to me.

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