Who Is Ai Weiwei?
By Lucy Birmingham
Published by Artinfo (now Blouin Artinfo): August 10, 2009
TOKYO—Who is Ai Weiwei? According to Chinese authorities, he is a dissident to be watched and followed, one whose inflammatory blog needed to be silenced. According to others, the Chinese conceptual artist, architect, photographer, curator, publisher, and celebrity blogger — loathed and loved for his human rights activism — is the courageous voice needed in today’s repressive China.
In person, Ai’s voice is gentle, almost melodic. Bearded, burly and 52, he could pass as a robust Chinese Santa who enjoys a good joke. He’s known for his wit, grace, and deep compassion toward the suffering of both humans and animals, and he’s admired for his strategic thinking and his genius for combining art and social projects. Dedicated volunteers, like those with his Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, have risked their own safety for his causes. A perfectionist, he attracts a highly skilled and devoted staff at his Fake Design studio, from which he catapulted to international fame as design consultant for the Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, a collaboration with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
According to some though, his temper can incinerate the best of intentions. He’s been called a headline grabber, a master of borrowing from other artists, and a “Scholar Clown,” and he’s been denounced for criticizing symbols of elitism and authority ranging from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City to the Chinese government to the Eiffel Tower.
There is no question that Ai Weiwei lives his art to the fullest. How best to view an artist of such proportion? “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum (MAM) — Ai’s first large-scale solo show worldwide — reveals the multi-faceted nature of this artistic genius with 26 works made since the 1990s.
Some controversial pieces are glaringly absent while six are new, like the work titled “Chandelier” hanging in the museum's entrance lobby. An oversized, half chandelier-like object, it is a satire on the bizarre Chinese state aesthetic, more than the nouveau riche.
One new work, titled “Snake Ceiling,” is a requiem for the children killed by collapsing school buildings during the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake — and his most recent merging of art and activism. "To protect the right of expression is the central part of an artists' activity…In China many essential rights are lacking and I wanted to remind people of this," says Ai to Artinfo.com in a conversation at the Mori Art Museum.
Stirred by the sight of children’s backpacks scattered throughout the disaster, he created "Snake Ceiling," a snake-like installation formed from hundreds of new backpacks, each black and white, sized for elementary and junior high school students. The coiled snake, suspended from the museum’s ceiling, alludes to artistic form, the snake as ancient monster, and the tragedy and systematic cover-up at the heart of Ai’s guerrilla investigation.
Using his widely read blog as a speaker platform — read by 17 million from Ai's count — he claimed the high number of school fatalities was due to local officials siphoning money from school building costs. Grieving families complained the schools were badly built and collapsed easily during the quake.
Officials refused to list the names of the dead students, which could be a link to school locations and unveil a possible cover-up. So Ai formed the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project with researchers and volunteers who discovered the names of 5,190 students. (5,335 became the official government figure, listed possibly because of pressure from Ai's campaign.) According to the project's findings, some 3,500 (80 percent) of the students killed were located in 18 of the 14,000 damaged schools, a finding that supports Ai's theory about a cover-up over poorly built schools. Ai’s blog posts were systematically censored or deleted throughout his investigation. On May 26–28 he wrote about being followed and about unknown persons visiting his mother’s house. On May 29 his blog was shut down.
“They shut us down because we were too active, so much heat, everybody coming into the discussions. We caused an Internet riot,” he says. “Even after 30 years of opening up with such an economic boom the government doesn’t want to change the political structure. There are so many hidden problems — corruption, total loss of ideology, the tendency of the judicial system to stick to party lines. There’s no fairness or justice.”
Not one to give up, Ai then turned to Twitter to call for an Internet boycott protesting the government’s Green Dam Youth Escort filtering software for new computers. Originally planned to start on July 1, it was ostensibly an effort to block online pornography but was widely criticized as a censorship tool that would restrict China’s 300 million Internet users. Ai’s efforts may have contributed to the delay announced on June 30 but it was more likely the result of complaints by Washington and U.S. industry groups.
Despite the small victory, Ai feels that international influence is waning as China is now the United States’ number-one foreign creditor, holding roughly $1 out of every $10 in U.S. public debt. “I don’t think there is international pressure anymore,” he says. “Because of the economic crisis, China and the United States are bound together. This is a totally new phenomenon, and nobody will fight for ideology anymore. It’s all about business.”
Ai’s remarks were removed from Twitter soon after his “Green Dam” protest, effectively silencing his online voice within China. His arrest may be a next step. Is he afraid? "I am not afraid and also not worried but I consider the possibility that [my activities] can cause this kind of result," Ai admits. “Anyone fighting for freedom does not want to totally lose their freedom,” he then explains. “I tell people that because you don’t bear any responsibility, you put me in danger. If we all say the same thing, then I think the government has to listen. But because no one is saying it I become singled out, even though what I’m saying is common sense. It’s very essential values that we all have to protect. But in Chinese society, people are giving up on protecting these values.”
“The government realizes that Ai has a passion for China,” explains Uli Sigg, the former Swiss Ambassador to China from 1995-99 and Ai’s first patron who is considered the world’s most influential collector of Chinese contemporary art. “It’s not just a show to get into the headlines like poison darts. But it doesn’t mean the government can tolerate everything."
"If you cross a certain line,” he adds, “then the government acts and absorbs the cost of that. Once they decide to go ahead, nothing will stop them. Then they will just close their ears.”
Ai’s father, Ai Qing, who passed away in 1996 at age 86, greatly influenced him. One of China's esteemed poets, he was sent to labor camps in northern Heilongjiang Province and western Xinjiang Province for 20 years for criticizing the Communist regime. The family followed and lived in horrible conditions. “For one sentence, you could sacrifice your life,” explained Ai in a 2008 Artzinechina.com interview. “As a youth, I lived as the son of an enemy of the state.” Ai’s respect for his father remains steadfast as his voice waivers with emotion during a seminar at the Mori Art Museum. “He was a very independent person… I can still see him with strong dignity, surviving inhuman conditions… He influenced a whole generation of intellectuals to become early revolutionaries. Now some of China's leaders recite his poetry by heart.”
In 1981, at age 24, discouraged by the lack of free expression, Ai left China and lived in the U.S. for 12 years, mainly in New York City. There he learned about Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, whose painting “According to What” (1964) was the inspiration for his MAM exhibition title. He befriended artists and intellectuals and worked at odd jobs. Throughout his decade in New York City he took thousands of black and white photos now edited into a fascinating video showing at the exhibition. Some document turbulent events like the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park when police tried to remove the homeless. There are also photos of friends like poetry icon Allen Ginsburg and the now famous director Chen Kaige and artist Xu Bing. Ai returned to China in 1993 after learning his father had fallen ill.
“He benefited very much from his experience in the West,” says Sigg. “Many Chinese artists had knowledge of Western art, but it remained superficial because they didn’t have access to the materials and philosophy. Ai had that background and also his in-depth background in Chinese culture."
This combination, and an interest in antiques, led Ai to create metaphorical pieces like “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo.” (1994). Ai inscribed the Coca Cola logo onto an ancient urn he found in an antique market, illustrating the ambiguity of value and aesthetics over time. His famous photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) depicts him actually dropping and destroying a priceless urn. It is a dramatic posture towards creation through destruction, a recurring theme in his work. In “Colored Vases” (2006), Neolithic Age jars have been dipped in bright industrial paints, pointing to surface appearances and hidden reality. In a reference to this work, writer and China art expert Philip Tinari, quotes Ai as saying, "You cover something so that it is no longer visible but is still there underneath. And what appears on the surface is not suppose to be there but is there." Tinari says, "It is a metaphor for China after 1949 or after the Cultural Revolution…That the earlier reality and current reality both look abhorrent and strange if seen in their right perspective and very often this is at the heart of Ai's political projects."
Also included are his fine wood sculptures made from reassembled Ming- and Qing-dynasty furniture and salvaged temple beams and pillars that explore the beauty and mystery of traditional Chinese nailless joinery. “Map of China” (2006) is a 3D China map made with intricately assembled old wood pieces and traditional joinery that poses subtle questions and critique about China’s perceived domination of areas like Tibet and Taiwan. A recent, engaging installation titled “Moon Chest” (2008), made of reassembled chests that form the waxing and waning of the moon, reflects Ai’s architectural eye.
Although the Beijing Olympics "Bird Nest" is one of Ai's signature works his feelings about the Olympics are clear: "Personally I think the goal totally failed," he says. "The Olympics became a very superficial activity that didn't lift China into another possible condition but rather created great difficulties for [the country’s] society today." Ai said he is nolonger interested in creating architecture but his 50-plus architectural works remain a central representation of his practice. At the MAM show, models, books, and postcards are on display, including the “Dog House,” Ai's first design proposal in Japan (yet to be built), for art patron Joni Walker.
“Ton of Tea” (2006) and a new, still fragrant work titled “Teahouse” (2009) are blocks made of compressed tea leaves that measure Ai’s fascination with shapes and materials. In tandem with this theme, also in the show, is his 2003 “Forever” bicycle installation assembled from pieces produced by a state factory called Shanghai Forever, once considered the must-have object of ’60s China. It remains an ironic and iconic symbol of Ai’s work that points to undifferentiated labor and mass production in a social framework that is unwieldy yet works — something that you can push on but won't quite fall apart.
Video and images from Ai’s historic 28-day journey with 1001 Chinese citizens to the 2007 Documenta 12 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, have been edited into a 150-minute movie titled “Fairytale,” showing for the first time at the exhibition. Although Ai was invited to Documenta to create an artwork, the journey itself became the work. Participants were chosen among thousands of applicants. The $4.1 million cost was provided by two Swiss foundations.
Between this Mori Art Museum exhibition and a larger one opening at Munich’s Haus der Kunst in October, Ai may overtake Cai Guo-Qiang as China’s most famous contemporary artist. Although a skilled, popular showman famed for his spectacular fireworks display at the Beijing Olympics, Cai’s work lacks the depth so integral to Ai’s many projects.
For his part, Ai boycotted the Olympics as a propaganda machine, exercising what he called his “freedom of choice.” He says he doesn’t want to comply with the system, even as an artist. “China is still culturally under strong censorship so a state museum would certainly never invite me,” he says. “If I have a show I don’t want to be censored… that’s not my principle. I don’t care if I ever have a show in China.”
This lack of reverence is surprising for someone who once said he would become the “Picasso of China.” When asked about his role in history, he turns circumspect and characteristically flippant. “I want to be forgotten,” he says. “I think we have too much history. It’s not so important, history. I think people should have fun and enjoy their own time. I haven’t done much, so why should I waste people’s memory?” He then adds with a careful, reserved smile, “My messages are temporary and shouldn’t be our permanent condition. And like the wind it will pass. We’ll have another wind coming.”