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May we suggest

Interviews / August 14, 2013

The Artist is Absent: 5 Questions About Ai Weiwei

A gallery visitor considers the picture of Ai Weiwei at the entrance to “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario / photo Barbara Solowan A gallery visitor considers the picture of Ai Weiwei at the entrance to “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario / photo Barbara Solowan

This Saturday, the exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” begins its only Canadian showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ai Weiwei, of course, is one of China’s (and the world’s) most prolific and provocative artists. His political activism and controversial works led to his arrest in 2011, and to the confiscation of his passport. He is currently not allowed to travel outside of China and his home and studio are under intense surveillance in Beijing. Here, Art Gallery of Ontario director Matthew Teitelbaum talks about the artist and the installation of an exhibition under these unusual circumstances.

Leah Sandals: At the press preview today, you and others involved with the show said you wished that Ai Weiwei could have been present for the opening and other events. What did you and the gallery pursue in terms of avenues for trying to make that happen?

Matthew Teitelbaum: Whatever you can think of, we’ve tried. Whatever your wildest imagination would lead you to, we’ve tried.

And you know, we’ll see what happens. It’s not our decision; it’s the Chinese government’s decision. He needs his passport in order to travel, and he doesn’t have his passport. We’ve certainly tried to make the case. I think it has a very low probability of happening.

LS: There are many artists around the world who suffer from political oppression and are jailed without cause. Why has the AGO decided to advocate for Ai Weiwei as opposed to a variety of other artists in this situation?

MT: I think that first of all one would have to acknowledge that there is, in staging this exhibition, a judgment about the quality and the importance of the work—that there is a way that his profile and his production can galvanize a certain conversation in our communities. That is the most important thing, I think, the institution does: engage its community in a conversation.

So I think on that basis alone, you might make a distinction between an artist like Ai Weiwei and one who may be doing good work but whose work is not very well known.

As well, I would say that many of the artists you might think of who are incarcerated or suffer oppression don’t produce a lot of work, and the work isn’t readily available. It is a condition of their life that doesn’t necessarily relate to a condition of production.

Whereas with Ai Weiwei, there is an exhibition, it’s got major work, the work is travelling. So there is a way to actually make the point not just conceptually, but with physical objects that we can gather together. That doesn’t exist for every significant artist whose work comes out of the situation of oppression.

LS: What do you make of the criticisms Italian curator Francesco Bonami has directed at Ai Weiwei? He has accused the artist of exploiting his status as a political dissident to further his art career.

MT: You know, I take a very simple position: it’s very, very difficult to make a judgment about somebody in whose shoes you are not walking.

I mean, Ai Weiwei makes his work out of very specific circumstances, and those who criticize him aren’t in that circumstance.

Some people might think that Ai Weiwei should have straightened every piece of rebar himself [to create the 38-tonne work at the AGO titled Straight, made out of crumpled rebar salvaged from buildings destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake] and not paid workers to do it with him. That’s an argument, I guess, about a certain philosophy of production and relationship to the worker.

But on the other hand, my experience of Ai Weiwei personally and in thinking about it is that he does create community and he does create a sense of shared purpose in his projects. And that has value itself.

LS: You are going to have a public Skype conversation with the artist on the evening of September 5. What do you hope to ask him, or speak with him about, most?

MT: I’m very interested in his reflections on the condition that exists when an artist cannot be present with his work.

Like, what does the artist’s voice mean and how is it different when it’s at a distance versus when it’s up close? How is distance different through technology than it is in person?

My hunch is that he’s been thinking about these issues because that’s how he’s reframing his practice. My own view is, if he’s prepared to talk about it, it will be pretty interesting.

LS: I understand you had a chance to visit with Ai Weiwei in Beijing. What most stood out for you from that experience? Or what most surprised you? Obviously, you had heard a lot about him before meeting him in person.

MT: My reflection is maybe also a reflection on this exhibition, which is the difference between how things seem and how they really are.

I mean, the experience of being with him was like being with an artist in his studio. But it wasn’t that, right? It wasn’t that. We walked into his studio with 20 surveillance cameras on his front door.

When we were in there, on one level you didn’t have a sense that he was anything other than an artist in a big city. But you were nonetheless aware—maybe because I brought this knowledge—that he wasn’t able to get outside of China, that the only way Ai Weiwei was communicating with folks was if they came to see him or if he got on the Internet.

So maybe that was the big takeaway: that things are not always quite what they seem. Which, by the way, is what I think a lot of the works in this exhibition really get us to think about.

This interview has been edited and condensed. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” opens August 17 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a related panel about freedom of expression on October 2 and another about the artist’s work in a Chinese context on September 25.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via