Pity the Chinese authorities. The more they try to shut Ai Weiwei down, the bigger he becomes. Deprived of a passport since his release from prison in June, 2011, he lives under heavy surveillance at his studio compound in Beijing. He missed the hoopla of the recent opening of the travelling exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, nor did he appear at earlier stops in Indianapolis and Washington, DC. Yet, in a sort of inverse logic, his absence spoke more loudly than his presence. His passionate activism, prodigious imagination and strategic management of his own celebrity have made him China’s—perhaps the world’s—most famous artist.
The man described by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof as “an icon of resistance” is seemingly everywhere. His voice is heard in prominent newspapers and magazines from the Economist to the Guardian to the New Yorker. A series of “Weiwei-isms,” short sayings (“A small act is worth a million thoughts”) whose format mimics Mao’s Little Red Book, were published in December by Princeton University Press. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—Alison Klayman’s compelling 2012 documentary portrait of a charismatic, driven individual—further broadened his fan base. The artist’s 81 days in detention provided fodder for #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, a play by Howard Brenton. For the first time this year, Ai, too, has made art based on his prison experience, currently on view in Venice as an adjunct to the Biennale.
Celebrated within the art world, but not dependent on its institutions to reach an audience, Ai Weiwei is perhaps the first global artist to fully exploit the power of social media. As a self-styled guerrilla in the battle for political transparency and freedom of expression in China, he comments, opines and tweets to some 200,000 followers for the better part of each day. Although his name is officially censored by 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 computer.
Significantly for a younger audience, he has a considerable presence on YouTube. His 2012 parody of the catchy K-pop hit “Gangnam Style”—which showed the rotund 56-year-old dancing about his courtyard in a pink T-shirt and black suit, swinging a set of handcuffs like a lasso—received over a million hits. In June, he released The Divine Comedy, a heavy-metal album whose expletive-laden song “Dumbass” compares China to a prostitute. In the music video, he turns the tables on his prison guards, and transforms his cell into an erotic, Felliniesque romp.
Part sage, part warrior, part clown, Ai Weiwei cannot be contained in a conventional art exhibition, but it’s a good place to start to understand his eclectic genius. “According to What?” is the first retrospective to travel in North America, and the AGO exhibition is the only Canadian stop on the tour. Originating at the Mori Museum in Tokyo in 2009, the show has been updated along the way. A few large, clunky wooden pieces (for example, 2006’s Kippe and 2008’s Moon Chest) might have been omitted, but in general, the art rewards attention.
His fluency in mimicking Pop, Conceptualist and Minimalist styles—a nod to Andy Warhol here, to Donald Judd there—gives a somewhat magpie look to the survey of photographs, sculptures and installations on display, as though he has hoovered up the gamut of late-20th-century American art and spat it out. Irreverence is the hallmark of notable early works, such as a series of photographs entitled Study of Perspective (1995–2003) in which he gives the finger to famous monuments, among them the Eiffel Tower, the White House and Tiananmen Square. The Perspective photographs are global in reach and deliberately amateurish in execution. By contrast, his sculptures and installations are elegantly crafted; the subject matter, from tea to bicycles, is Chinese. Highlights include around 3,000 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 Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads from 2010, an imposing set of 12 bronze Chinese zodiac figures mounted in the reflecting pool at Nathan Phillips Square.
In each case, there is an underlying critique aimed at Chinese consumerism, nationalism or wilful erasure of the past, so subtle as to slip below the radar of government censors—and, indeed, of most viewers. By contrast, distance and irony disappear in the work made in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, several fine examples of which are included in the exhibition. The artist’s public denunciation of the government’s refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the fate of over 5,000 children who died in poorly-built schools, and his decision to honour the victims in various memorials, put him head-to-head with police and Chinese authorities, and helped lead to his detention.
Although Ai Weiwei is a hero in the West, his audience is largely ignorant of China and where he fits in his own culture. The AGO programming aims to enrich the context for understanding the work: clips from the documentary Never Sorry accompany the exhibition; lectures on contemporary Chinese art are being offered in addition to panel discussions on art and activism and freedom of expression. At a sold-out public event in the gallery on September 5, museum director Matthew Teitelbaum will interview the artist over Skype, introducing a much-needed live component.
Whether Ai is an artist who engages in activism or an activist who makes art is not a question that can be answered solely on the basis of the works presented here. Increasingly, he depends on the Internet to disseminate his ideas, and he has conflated art and activism in a way that defies traditional categories. He has harshly criticized fellow Chinese artists who fail to address political issues in their work, a stance which has tended to isolate him within that community. The following Twitter exchange, dated May 25, 2012, is indicative of the mighty ego at the centre of it all:
@swedishgurl: @aiww are you doing any art work?
@aiww: I am the artwork.
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 AGO exhibition includes photographs from this formative period, including an image of a wire coat hanger that he shaped into a hook-nosed profile of Marcel Duchamp and filled with sunflower seeds (a tiny predecessor to the famous installation of eight-million hand-painted porcelain seeds at Tate Modern in 2010–11). We see a fascination with public acts of dissent in his shots of HIV/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 an 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 the 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 the clever photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.
Iconoclasm continues in the related, though less interesting 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 2012 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 70,000 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. Outraged by the official refusal to accept responsibility or even 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. 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 cause. He organized a group of volunteers to conduct fieldwork to identify as many children as possible by speaking to victims’ families, who were purportedly intimidated into silence by the government; the ongoing project has 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 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 he received a blow to the head in the ensuing scuffle. Soon after, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage for which he underwent emergency surgery in Munich.
On another visit to the zone, he had been moved by the spectacle of small backpacks trampled in the muddy ruins. He subsequently referenced these poignant mementoes in memorial installations such as Snake Ceiling, a long, sinuous, coiling dragon fashioned from bright-green interlinked backpacks, which opens the AGO exhibition. Further Sichuan-related works are a series of heartbreaking photographs of flattened schools and Straight, a powerfully elegiac floor sculpture fashioned from straightened rods of rusty steel rebar salvaged from the ruins. The rippling contours of the wave-like configuration echo the fault line in the mountains along which the earthquake occurred. A wall installation, Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, features floor-to-ceiling lists of the 5,196 names gathered by the volunteer team; as well, they are read aloud over public speakers.
Ai has extensively documented his personal involvement in the project: cameras were present when he was arrested in Chengdu in 2009, and in the Munich hospital at the time of his operation. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” includes the photo Ai took of himself surrounded by police on the night of the fateful beating. In it, the camera flash creates a halo-like burst of light above his head. There is also a framed image of a brain scan of his internal bleeding: surely a first for an art exhibition. These tokens of personal martyrdom, displayed as art rather than as documentation, strike me as inappropriate. There is a disturbing sense of self-importance riding on the suffering of others.
Now on 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. When outside observers—myself included—applaud his wit and courage, we generally do so without knowing what, if anything, he is accomplishing to advance the causes he claims to promote. We cheer Ai Weiwei because he looks and sounds like a renegade hero in the American mold: a handcuff-waving freedom fighter giving the finger to authority.
What gets lost in a simple snapshot of one-man-against-the-system is a sense of the political, cultural and psychological complexity that attends acts of resistance. Within China, Ai Weiwei is a polarizing figure. In a culture where saving face is highly valued and dissent is traditionally expressed in coded terms, his actions can be seen as counterproductive, even “un-Chinese,” a criticism the artist acknowledged as partly just in a recent online interview with the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent Evan Osnos.
Among Chinese artists, he 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 but also to his willful alienation from his peers. In September 2012, he wrote a cranky article in the Guardian criticizing the Chinese artists featured in 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 perplexing.
Ai Weiwei is a rarity among artists in that his voice has come to represent an entire people—as dynamic, compelling and contradictory as China itself. Art alone does not justify his immense reputation, nor does it convey the extraordinary life force that comes across over the Internet. The AGO exhibition is not the whole story, but it provides an engaging introduction to one of the most fascinating figures of our time.
This article was corrected on September 26, 2013. The original copy erroneously stated that there were no works in the AGO show that were created after 2011. Ai Weiwei’s Wooden Cuffs, in the exhibition, were created in 2012.