Art Essays

Ai Weiwei

Published May 22, 2008

Ai Weiwei has spent the past decade swimming against a tide that now looks more like a tsunami. Born in 1957, he spent his youth in the remote province of Xingjian, where his father, the poet Ai Qing, had been sent for re-education. The family was not allowed to return to Beijing until 1975, when Ai Qing was officially rehabilitated.
In 1978 Ai Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy, along with Zhang Yimou and others who would make a major impact on the nation’s born-again film industry. He left the following year to become a founding member of the Stars group – seen as the first avant-garde artists’ movement of the Communist era. The Stars championed individual creativity, as opposed to the monolithic demands of Socialist Realism, which was still the approved official style. When the Stars dissolved in 1983, Ai Weiwei left for the United States, where he would remain for the next ten years.
His time in America had a lasting impact on the young exile. He discovered artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and gave up painting in favour of a more conceptual style of art. He did not, however, become a dedicated convert to the free market. On returning to Beijing in 1993 to see his ailing father, he found himself in a nation that was barely recognizable. The Central Committee of the Communist Party, which had previously taken a hard line against “capitalist roaders” and signs of “spiritual pollution”, were now the board of directors of China Inc. They presided over an economic free-for-all, where enormous fortunes were being made overnight. Whole districts of Beijing were being demolished and refashioned along western lines.
Yet somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, China was still a Communist country, ruled by a self-styled “Socialist dictatorship.” To Ai Weiwei, it seemed that the leadership had added hypocrisy and profiteering to their ideological platform. The old slogans about Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought were still being bandied about, but it was obvious that Money was the new spiritual ideal of the Party faithful.
Everybody knew what was going on, but nobody wanted to say anything – partly through fear, partly through the hope of securing a slice of the action. Ai Weiwei, however, has been an outspoken critic ever since he returned to China. His comments have received ever-greater prominence as his international reputation as artist, architect and designer has continued to grow. The crowning glory was his design for the “bird’s nest” stadium – the symbol and centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics, realized in collaboration with the Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron.
Anybody else might have gloried in their sudden celebrity, but Ai Weiwei took the opportunity to tell the world exactly what he thought about the new China and its leadership. “The games are a propaganda show, a gigantic masked ball,” he told the German magazine, Der Spiegel, in January, “The outcome will be endless nonsense and boredom.”
In Sydney last April for the opening of Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, the artist had no regrets over these comments. Apart from the fact that he has no personal interest in sport, he saw the Olympics as a massive act of deception on behalf on the Chinese government, who were determined to convey a positive, wholesome facade to the rest of the world. He was staggered by the way the official press kept referring to the Olympic Torch as “the Holy Torch”.
“They’re still thinking in the same old hard-line way,” said Ai Weiwei. “Everything they’re doing with the Olympics is only about image. But it’s a strange idea. You can beat your wife as much as you like at home, but then you can’t invite everyone around for a party.”
Ai Weiwei is prepared to use words such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, when he discusses what China needs most. He sees a society riddled with corruption and profiteering, and believes the government is complicit in these acts. He is aware that not only is it dangerous to make such statements, but that he is putting himself out-of-step with the vast majority of Chinese who want to forget the past, enjoy whatever benefits the new era brings, and see their country make a good impression on the international community.
“There is this attitude among the Chinese people that it’s better to keep quiet,” he admits. “After all, things are so much better than they were. But how can I say nothing? Where does it all lead? What sort of society will we have if things continue in this way?”
In his multiple roles as artist, architect, designer, publisher, editor and consultant, Ai Weiwei has set out to engage with the ongoing orgy of destruction and creation that characterizes present-day China. A specially commissioned installation at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, who sponsored his Campbelltown survey, consisted of thirty ironwood beams and pillars from destroyed Qing dynasty temples, and ten antique tables, rearranged into a maze that filled the entire exhibition space. This piece, called Through, was built and re-assembled by five Chinese carpenters working to Ai Weiwei’s instructions.
One of the benefits of his worldwide fame is that Ai Weiwei now employs a small army of craftsmen to construct his projects. This allows him to be extraordinarily productive. He estimates that he has been responsible for between fifty and sixty architectural projects in China over the past ten years.
In many instances his work takes the form of an intervention in an existing space that acts as a memorial to previous structures and usages. Some of his projects, such as a Neolithic Pottery Museum in Jinghua (2007), have the same radical simplicity that one associates with Tadao Ando, and the same use of smooth concrete blocks. In In Between (2000), he inserted a small house-shaped module into the floor that divides the 19th and 20th levels of a residential complex. Set at an angle, the house acts as a reminder of the modest dwellings that were once found in the same district.
In a monumental installation called Fountain of Light, made for the 2007 Liverpool Biennale, Ai Weiwei reconstructed Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International in the form of a glittering chandelier, in a oblique comment on the Communist Party’s newfound taste for luxury living.
In other works he has had himself photographed as he drops and smashes a genuine Ming vase, and commissioned fake vases that are so skillfully done even the experts might be fooled. He has made photographs that document the demolition of old buildings, and the modern monstrosities that take their place. He has commissioned long, humdrum videos shot from bridges over Beijing’s ring roads, or from the front seat of a moving car as it winds its way slowly through the streets of the city. Even though there is an element of parody in this painstaking effort to map and record urban space, it anticipated the actual efforts of the Google corporation, who are now doing the exactly the same thing and putting the results on the internet.
Ai Weiwei sees his work as a response to the brutality of urban redevelopment in China, where government policy can be responsible for the “eradication” of whole areas. Instead, he flavours a bend of past and present; a space that honours the memory of earlier structures and their inhabitants. In itself, this idea shows how very different Ai Weiwei’s thinking is from the vast majority of Chinese, who see anything new as a distinct improvement on the old, and are seemingly indifferent to the quick profits made by hasty, poor quality developments.
In Fairytale, his major work for the 2007 Kassel Documenta, Ai Weiwei arranged to bring 1,001 Chinese citizens to Germany for a week, where they would experience a different culture for the first time. It was a massive logistical exercise even to obtain visas and exit permits for so many people, necessitating the intervention of the German ambassador. The travellers, who arrived in groups of 200 –250, were issued with identical suitcases, and housed in pupose-built dormitories.
Ai Weiwei has said that Fairytale had no special ‘meaning’, and that it was as much an adventure for him as for the travellers. In retrospect, he says that it was “all about allowing people to see another way of life with their own eyes – people who had never left China, and often had lived most of their lives in some small town or village.”
The work is documented in a film of more than three hours that follows a number of participants, as they apply for the trip and wait to hear whether or not they have been successful. The viewer catches a glimpse of their everyday lives and hears about their dreams and aspirations. It is a portrait of contemporary China in which individuals step forward from the mass, securing one fleeting moment of cinematic immortality. For Ai Weiwei it is another stage in his ongoing project to reclaim a morsel of memory from the gaping jaws of progress.
Profile for PolOxygen. Never published, as the magazine closed before the issue went to print.