26 March 2014
Ai Weiwei: Colored Vases

Ai Weiwei -- According to what?

Ai Weiwei is said to be the most important contemporary artist in the world today. But is he really an artist? Or is he more an activist, and a self-promoting media manipulator?

Ai Weiwei is said to be the most important contemporary artist in the world today. But is he really an artist? Or is he more an activist, and a self-promoting media manipulator?

The Art Gallery of Toronto's exceptional exhibition, "Ai Weiwei: According to What?", gives us much for thought in this context.

Ai Weiwei has always known politics. His father, Ai Qing, a renowned poet and academic, was declared an enemy of the state during the 1958 Anti-Rightist Movement, a campaign intended to identify critics of Mao's government. Ai's family was exiled to a labor camp in northwest China. Though their lifestyle was basic, Ai recalls that his father "created a lot of mental space for us. It was another world". They returned to Beijing in 1976, after the death of Mao.

Ai decamped to New York in 1981 where he attended Parsons The New School for Design. He discovered Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, who became his main artistic influences. He returned to China in 1993 when his father fell ill.

Following the tragic events of Tiananmen Square, Ai was increasingly critical of China's repressive regime, and became a promoter of human rights and freedom of speech. He seized the occasion of the 2008 Olympics, and his collaboration in the design of the iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium to criticize the Chinese government's use of the Games as propaganda. His bird's nest design was intended to "give people the impression of freedom and openness".

Ai's reaction to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which radicalized him ever further, is at the center of the AGO exhibition. At least 90,000 people were killed. This included more than 5,000 school children, whose shoddy "tofu" school building structures collapsed. The failure to enforce building standards is just one of the many faces of Chinese corruption.

Ai travelled to the site only to find strewn backpacks and shoes, notepads and pencil cases among the remnants from the quake. He was outraged by the government's inaction. "Straight", a work of steel rods recovered from the school houses, then straightened, reflects his anger at the government's refusal to acknowledge the victims, and its desire to move forward as if nothing happened.

This tragedy inspired a giant sculpture of a snake made of children's backpacks that startles you from the ceiling of the entrance to the exhibition. A wall installation lists 5,196 names of children who died in the earthquake. Ai initiated a Citizens' Investigation to recover the names of children.

The names are also read aloud over public speakers at the exhibition. As Ai says, "A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part in an ever-changing world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights: no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue".

A photo triptych showing Ai dropping and smashing a Han Dynasty urn suggests that people can develop new ideas and values by challenging traditional beliefs. At the same time, a series of photos lament the demolition of traditional buildings, without the permission of the occupants.

3000 hand-painted crabs, which were made for the river crab festival, poke criticism at the Chinese government. "He Xie", the term for river crab, is pronounced the same as "harmonization", a Communist Party slogan, which is a euphemism for censorship.

Each one of the exceptional pieces in this exhibition has several layers of meaning, and political messages. We are also astonished by the variety of mediums and forms, and the monumentality of most, like the map of China sculpted from wood gathered from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. And then there is a small disturbing pair of wooden hand cuffs, beautifully carved from huali wood.

Could an artist/activist like Ai ever be a threat to China's Communist regime?

It is difficult to imagine so, although he does add to the growing cauldron of discontent. Certainly, the Chinese authorities violent treatment of him suggests that they believe so. One piece, Brain Inflation, shows the MRI image of a brain haemorrhage that he suffered following a police beating, while a dramatic photo in an elevator shows him being taken into custody by the police.

The irony is that the more Ai is repressed by the Chinese authorities, the more famous he becomes in the West. And the more he becomes a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party's state of desperation and paranoia.

He is now under house arrest, from which he is very active blogging, Skyping, tweeting, receiving visitors and giving interviews.

Ai is not well known in China, due to the controls on his activities and movements. But one of China's many contradictions is that Chinese people are increasingly free to travel, and migrate, and can thus become aware of his work overseas.

I spoke to some of the Chinese people attending the exhibition. They were clearly impressed by Ai's work, and visibly proud of his fame in the West. Artists like Ai (and writers like Liu Xiaobo) seem to be strengthening the international reputation of Chinese contemporary culture, even though they may threaten the stability of the Communist regime.

And the Canadians viewing the exhibition seemed to be deeply moved (I visited the exhibition twice). The Chinese government's lavish efforts to promote "soft power" cannot compete with exhibitions like this.

For an answer to our initial question, we need only ask Ai himself, according to who "Everything is art. Everything is politics."

And as one of the Chinese visitors to the exhibition reminded me, art has always been an instrument of politics in China. Way back in the Han Dynasty, 2,000 years ago, the rise of an educated, non-aristocratic public questioned the authority of the royals and the rich through art.

While Ai is very active and successful with social media, he very clearly has a deep humanistic philosophy:

"Everyone who comes into this world should have a chance to develop themselves, to get their very basic rights, to exercise their will and to have a passion, imagination and the freedom to participate".

And his deep concern for the people affected by the Sichan earthquake is unquestionably sincere:

"Extending a hand to those in trouble, rescuing the dying, and helping the injured is a form of humanitarianism, unrelated to love of country or people. Do not demean the value of life; it commands a broader, more equal dignity."


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: china, ai wei wei, art gallery of toronto, chinese contemporary art

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