东方视觉 当代艺术第一门户

Ai Weiwei’s Relevance
ionly.com.cn Carol Yinghua Lu
2011年01月04日 13:2:57

Despite Ai Weiwei’s seemingly unstoppable popularity in the international art scene, there still exists a great deal of uncertainty in terms of his own relevance to the Chinese art scene, its art history and art market. The scant recognition he’s gained in the Chinese art system is completely out of proportion to the immensity of his oeuvre that comprises everything from beautiful concepts (Think “Fairy-tale”[1], 2008) to powerful objects (Think “Map of China”[2], 2006). In a recent exhibition in Beijing entitled “Reshaping History”[3] that was meant to be a historic survey of Chinese art produced within the last decade up till 2009, Ai was conspicuously omitted from the list of 200-plus artists in the show.


Ai’s practice also fails to fit anywhere in the nascent narrative of recent art history that is mainly structured around such movements as “cynical realism”, “political pop”, “kitschy art”, “conceptual photography” to “cartoon art” and so on. These movements didn’t emerge out of any artistic or political appeals or beliefs but were rather man-made by a small group of art critics, curators and gallerists whose interests were bound together in such self-definitions. Chinese contemporary artists and critics owed a large part of their imaginaries of contemporary art to the legacy of modernity in its evolutionary logic and avant-garde spirit. Yet such an avant-garde attitude was more aimed at ideology on a superficial level than the institution of art as manifested in the ideals, understanding, value and discourse of art. This rigid movement-based historic dogma of art in China tends to overstress the importance of certain groups of artists whose work could be interpreted within such a narrow framework yet underestimates if not completely excludes practices that can’t be framed in such a value system. The authority of this value system has been testified over and over again by the dominant commercial structure in China so that it has become accepted by the experience and understanding of most people without question.


The current historic narrative that was penned around the success stories of the art market, rather than a methodology employing critical scrutiny, only serves to reaffirm those successes and leaves no room for more conceptual, contemplative and less easily defined practices. These latter practices have, actually, existed all along and have been equally valuable in shaping artistic thinking and practice in the profession today. Ai Weiwei’s art practice certainly resists easy categorization and those so-called “trends” that have been identified and packaged for market consumption. Although Ai was a member of the Star Group, which is generally considered as one of the key starting points for the rise of contemporary art in China at the end of 1970s, he did leave the country in the early 80s without having a chance to cash on its stardom. Between then and his return to Beijing in 1993, the basic shape of the art world and the circles of friends and foes in it were already formed. Upon his return, Ai had to search for a new entry into the local art world, which didn’t come so easily. The middle of the 1990s in China saw the peak of those so-called avant-garde artists whose work was interpreted with political and ideological connotation and was gaining widespread popularity and recognition. There was generally a disregard and little support in terms of accessibility of exhibition spaces and funding for contemporary art in the official circuit that disrupted its connection to the contemporary art circle following the China Avant-garde exhibition and the student movement in 1989. The social climate was conservative and alert to anything that didn’t conform to the ideological hegemony of the state. There was actually a heightened level of tension between the contemporary art circle and the state all through the 1990s.


Luckily, Ai Weiwei hadn’t chosen to subscribe to the existing rules and order but consciously and slowly develop his individual system logistically, artistically and intellectually independent of the mainstream preferences and practices. He funded his own productions through antique-dealing, helped establish an art space, did self-publishing, built his own team, created his own circle of artist friends who he supported by providing them with work and fund, and courted attention to himself through actively creating contexts for himself to act and be visible. From 1994 to 1997, Ai co-edited the Black, White & Gray Cover Books, three independently published compilations of artist interviews, proposals, texts and theoretical references. These publications gave visibility to the thinking and work of Ai himself as well as that of his peers including the likes of Xu Bing, Huang Yongping, Geng Jianyi and Qian Weikang. Qian for example had stopped practicing entirely. Ai also joined Dutch artist and curator Hans Van Dijk to establish the China Art Archive and Warehouse (CAAW) in Beijing in 1998. CAAW continued Hans Van Dijk’s diligent work to collect documentations and build up an archive of these materials relevant to the artists CAAW worked with and supported and organized exhibitions featuring a younger generation of artists from different parts of China who otherwise had little exposure. After Hans Van Dijk’s demise in 2002, Ai has been acting as the art director of CAAW and kept it as a space free of mainstream tastes and preferences. In 2000, Ai Weiwei co-curated the seminal exhibition “Fuck Off” with Beijing based curator Feng Boyi, which was a statement of refusal as suggested by its Chinese title literally translated as “Not to Cooperate”, to cooperate with the official system and a defiant gesture made towards the Shanghai Biennale that was opening at the same time and signaled a crucial turning point of the government’s attitude towards contemporary art from one of rejection and suppression to acceptance and assimilation.


Such a conscious and courageous choice has naturally kept him rejected and omitted from many exhibitions and possibilities offered by other people in the local art system. By resisting associations with formed circles and powers in the art world, Ai knows deeply from the very beginning the extreme difficulties yet power of developing his own platform on which he could direct and lead completely on his own will.


It’s interesting to observe how different Ai and many of his peers who have shared the same experience of living abroad and returning in recent years to China are in their approaches to reasserting and legitimizing their very presence in their own country and the art world. Many have opted for certainties rather than operating on an indeterminate ground as Ai does. Most of these artists had left China in the 1990s with disillusions and distrust of the system that hasn’t changed much at all. Today, they seem so eager to comply with the system that they simply throw themselves at the complete service and mercy of it. Some have taken up prominent jobs in the art academies. Some made works to glorify the politics. Some joined the government-sponsored Chinese National Academy of Contemporary Art that was founded in 2009 and grouped 30 contemporary Chinese artists to become the first team of academy experts. The significance, danger and paradox of the occasion is far greater than it appears. The fact that these academy experts who have now been put on the government’s payroll were unanimously among those classified as outcasts by the same government in the early 1990s was not to be forgotten. The seemingly openness and tolerance of the government as shown in this event should be interpreted with alarm yet accepted and welcome without question by these artists who once prized themselves and courted attention to themselves thanks to their independence and criticality of such a system. This landmark event doesn’t mean the victory of art in the Chinese society but rather contrarily the further corrosion and loss of the autonomy of thinking and art to the baits of the authoritarian power.


This shift of climate makes Ai Weiwei’s uncertain position much more precarious and isolated, yet crucial to the health of the art system. The prolific and inexhaustible practice of Ai is a role model in many senses, primarily the importance and possibility of independent-thinking. As seen in many of his works in which he collages, breaks, repaints, deconstructs, re-arranges, and reinvents objects from traditional Chinese culture, be it antique statues to porcelain-making techniques, Ai understands and more importantly respects the specificities as well as the fundamental ideas of these objects and the culture around them, at the same time, he consciously and continuously visualizes, questions and challenges the orthodox and authoritarian power and agency that tradition or those values associated with traditions could also make ready for us. The ready-made he aims at really in his works is actually not the objects but the fixed perceptions, ideology, myth, misunderstandings and authority attached to those objects. It’s about letting go of certainties and allowing new possibilities.


Ai Weiwei seems to know more than most. This is an impression that I have formed of Ai Weiwei over time having followed Ai’s practice through his exhibitions, his writings and the documentary films produced by Ai Weiwei’s studio about a number of his recent activist campaigns. On the one hand, ‘knowing more’ and concealing it implies a certain level of authority and power. Authority in turn creates a hierarchy that thrives on protecting its privileged access to information, using it to its best advantage to maintain and intimidate the less well informed. This approach is in principle against Ai Weiwei’s worldview and has prompted him to continuously pose questions to the Chinese government, perhaps the best informed and most secretive of all. On the other hand, knowing more, sharing such awareness and promoting a deeper understanding of our reality can stimulate a sense of responsibility to act and an urge to make changes. This has become an important thread that runs through Ai’s thinking and actions. Knowing ‘more’ prompts one either to power or to responsibility, depending on who is party to such knowledge.


The first remark that Ai Weiwei made at our initial meeting in his studio early in June this year was: “You know that most people don’t really know and understand what I do.” It wasn’t a pretense of modesty but a genuine statement that didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it seems that many people in the Chinese art world share certain skepticism towards Ai and his multiplicity of roles and projects. In 2008, Ai initiated a civil investigation into the numbers and names of individual students killed in poorly constructed school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake. However, certain Chinese artists, a number specifically linked with the so-called “cynical realism” group (a term coined by a small circle of Chinese critics and gallerists in the early 1990s) queried whether Ai’s investigations might be supported by another political party in order to endanger the rule of China’s current government. In this view, Ai Weiwei is just a courier and embodiment of another political agenda, complying with and growing into such a role in order to develop his own portfolio and social status.


It’s important to realize that our social system badly afflicted with corruption, lacking in transparency, fairness and humanity and that had led to the death of more than 5000 school children could also affect any of us in any other context. We are not immune, but rather equally exposed to the fundamental problems of corruption, unfairness and disregard for human lives apparently prevalent in the system. The idea that art can change society isn’t just a romantic thought but one of significant social connotation and relevance. The incentive and courage to initiate and establish one’s own system that speaks equally to the main establishment is built on the critical thought of feeling involved and thus responsibility. It takes a truly independent state of mind to think not only about benefiting from what exists but more importantly to be aware of what can be done better and how one can contribute to such changes. Ai Weiwei not only spoke out but chose to take actions that asked legitimate questions about who those school kids were that died and how many of them there were. These facts, however, were classified as state secrets. The government doesn’t want us to know. Yet Ai and his team wanted to know more for the sake of understanding what had actually happened and finding out what could be avoided in the future. Wanting to know more, thus, turned Ai and his voluntary staff involved in the investigation into accused spies and therefore targets of incessant police harassment. What Ai and his teammates have done in risking their own freedom and safety wasn’t necessarily in line with how the leaders and media, controlled and shaped by the singular value system of the government, had repeatedly told the general population to respond: to mourn, to forget and to move on. The government had wanted us to focus on the obvious: that a terrible natural disaster had taken place. What the government didn’t want was for any of us, including those whose loved ones were hurt or killed in the earthquake, to be rational, clear-headed, or to question and to learn more about some of the darker truths it had tried to cover up underneath the ruins of the quake.


It certainly seems easier to forget than to seek more knowledge. Ai and such activists as Tan Zuoren were some of the few people who had actively questioned what had led to the collapse of so many schools. The dark mood of the social majority and at the same time a universal applause of and gratitude towards the state’s performance in its reaction to the occasion, as portrayed and amplified by the media overshadowed every corner of the nation. This deliberately simplified and abstracted representation of the actual event for sensation, entertainment, philanthropic outpouring and ideological brainwashing, brutally consumed those who had suffered and lost children in the disaster.


I could see how such agenda-based interpretations of Ai’s concern of the earthquake, has its subscribers and echoes in the spiritually deprived and materially hungry value system of not only the Chinese art world but also the society at large. After all, historically, during the political party fights of the Cultural Revolution, many people acted as tellers and critics just for the sake of surviving and helping themselves through the extreme bareness of human cruelty towards each other. There has been an almost complete loss of compassion and trust in humanity among the Chinese population following the revolution. Individuals are unable to identify the complexity of an actual situation, rather they habitually arrive at superficial conclusions based on the simplified two-fold moral stands of right or wrong. In the face of crisis, each individual often falls prey to and is kidnapped by such false moral judgments that either solicit collective emotion or condemn any alternative individual decision that doesn't fulfill the collective sentiment and expectation. There is tendency for blind collectivism in China, and as Ai Weiwei has pointed out, there is no clear distinction between the public and the private in the Chinese society. In the eyes of the media and the general opinions of the people, the private property of celebrities should also be disposable to those in need and their kind intentions are weighed only by their materialization in monetary terms. The media seems to be exercising a certain monitoring function in such cases by imposing the duty of donation onto people living in the spotlight (for example, in their charitable donations in response to large-scale natural disasters, stars like Zhang Ziyi ended up being suspected for setting up a foundation originally to raise donations for affected school kids in the earthquake but actually to solicit fund for herself.). However, the premise of such criticism is rarely examined and questioned. The fact that the media mobilizes public opinions and pressure to force celebrities to contribute and that the government willingly promotes it as such seems to be immoral itself.


Ai himself is also conscious of the blurred border, if any, between the public and the private domains and how this ambiguity could be turned to a good use. He for one, hasn’t shied away from revealing anything about his prominent yet troubled family history or his present life, which he constantly and voluntarily exposes through his own camera or the media to the public. His blog entries were overloaded with images from his travels, openings, meetings and gatherings with friends. In the small-mindedness of the Chinese art world, anything Ai does has been primarily dismissed as a way to gain visibility and opportunity for his own artistic career, especially as it is one that is gaining increasing momentum and weight internationally. Many people simply stop at such an assumption without looking any closer into the actual practice and detail of Ai’s work. Like the social temperament it grows out of, the spirit of the Chinese art circle isn’t one of independent criticality but is an extremely simplistic and distorted functionalist one: it recognizes and identifies with successes as well as breeds professional envy and bitterness. In such a perspective, whatever Ai does politically and says outrageously, it is always viewed as feeding into the celebratory status Ai enjoys in Western media and the international art scene. Thanks to the inferiority complex of the contemporary art scene in China whose commercialization and industrialization was initiated and supported by the Western market and institutional system that consume it as a new regional cuisine, Ai’s success story however, agonizes those who are longing to be accepted by the West yet at the same time deeply jealous and critical of those from their own scene that can play an equal part in it. It’s no wonder Ai would say in definite terms at our meeting that the art world with its economic operations and the circle of people operating around such limited and limiting premises is too small for him. For someone like Ai who moves fluidly at the top level of the international art scene through meetings, exhibitions and conferences, the sky has no limit. His studio is one of the most visited destinations for the inflow of international curators, journalists, museum directors and collectors from everywhere in the world. The fact that the world has actually come to Ai and that Ai considers it so lightly is a source of frustration for those seeking similar status within the Chinese art world.


The impossibility of categorizing Ai’s many activities according to the prevailing major dogma of the Chinese art world and the fact that they often appear to be unfathomable to those unaware of art beyond any material productions doesn’t weigh in Ai Weiwei’s favor either. Ai Weiwei ‘knows more’ and this condition is not one to be liked or respected but to be ignored and marginalized. To those threatened by Ai’s influence and capability as well as those whose minds are conditioned and regulated by the motivation theory and unable to make any distinction beyond, it’s more relevant to ask questions of and put labels on what Ai does than to understand how it can actually expand the dimension of our understandings and value system.


Ai is also one who knows more about the thorny and complicated relationship between art and politics than what has been portrayed, defined and taken for granted in the recent history of Chinese art. There hasn’t been a single moment when art isn’t taken hostage by politics in China. It has been modeled as an effective propaganda tool since the Communist ruling and tightly controlled and steered towards such a political calculation. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, artists had claimed to take art back into their own hands, but only to unconsciously or consciously adapt it to another purpose. It was employed to be an uncomplicated expression of anger, dissatisfaction and defiance towards the control of the government, a seemingly avant-garde attitude. Yet as soon as such a critical gesture became marketable and quickly consumed both by the market and the political machine itself, it also remained an empty signifier that just made visual and thematic references to all kinds of political symbols and icons without touching upon any fundamental issues and thinking analytically. Artists have almost lost their ability to think independently and political sensibility in fact but rather habitually take criticality as a mere posture of artistic freedom. This reality deprives art of its ability to contemplate and stand on its own ground.


This reality also makes Ai Weiwei, who is ‘in the know’, appear to be excruciatingly alone in his soberness and refusal to confuse the kind of superficial political engagement and position-taking tactfully made by many Chinese artists in their artwork with the notion of political art or to act in accordance. Yet his persistence at communicating his views openly through the Internet, first on his blog until it was forceably shut down by the authorities and now through twitter, has attracted hundreds of thousands of people, especially those of a younger generation, to his ideas and side. Ai Weiwei is a gifted and powerful writer. He writes beautifully and emotionally. He excercises a large degree of self-constraint in his writing as he does in making aesthetic decisions for his artworks. His works always appear to be concise, subtle, elegant and absolute. He writes succinctly, specifically, purely and gracefully. There have never been any grandiose claims or exclamations but his writings reason compellingly and ignite fierce emotion and responses. Writing and communicating through twitter have been described by Ai himself as a form of schooling he enacts for those that follow. In his eight-hour-per-day talking on twitter, Ai acts as a speaking person, a position that was crucial to the practice of Beuys, who can be seen as an important precursor to Ai’s work. “What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power.”[4]


Those who write to him on twitter, follow him on twitter, answer his calls for spontaneous lunch or dinner meetings with fellow twitter users, and join his call for voluntary activist acts, help contribute to the formation of a network around Ai Weiwei and his philosophy. Through this ever-growing network of contacts and people, Ai Weiwei spreads his reflections on both current affairs and humanity as well as news about his latest legal and artistic pursuits, and distributes documentary films his studio produced independently, which would have been impossible to be circulated through normal channels. The more people listen to him, the more clout he gathers. Twitter becomes an important means of social organization that presents a formidable amount of human power and political potential. Without being endorsed by any authoritarian order, Ai Weiwei definitely occupies a position of power that many people look up to. He has single-handedly created his own system, an individual system that doesn’t look for approval and acceptance but challenges and fights with establishments, in which it develops its own relevance.


Ai Weiwei might appear to be extremely calculated in his regular maneuvering with the establishment, now almost a staple for his everyday life and by doing so, he subjects himself to both the spotlight and high risks, he’s ultimately a pessimist and a romantic as well as a person characterized and energized by such contradictions. In our exchanges through our hour-long meeting that was organized in between his time on twitter, he talked about the dark prospect of our human beings. We would become so consumed and overwhelmed and eventually destroyed by our messing up of the world endorsed by technology and the ideology embedded in it, he predicted. How does emotion come into this picture? I put forward the question to him. ‘Emotion is a kind of adhesive’, Ai answered. ‘It glues everything together. Without it, an object, an event, a place or a person has no story or history and would have felt cold’. With this, I understand a lot more about his works and why he would like to refer over and over again in his work to old wood, antique pots, past events and patterns of life, things carrying with them the weight of time and the warmth of emotion. Such a sentiment also revealed to me the abstraction of his work often through multiplication, as also evident in this metaphorical work he makes for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The sunflower seeds are a kind of adhesive as Ai described that embodies human emotion and exudes personal warmth. In north China in particularly, no matter how difficult the conditions are, people offer each other or keep for themselves a handful of sunflower seeds for comfort. As a simple snack, they provide a space in the heart of people, for basic pleasure, for friendship and kindness, a peace of mind and heart, a place untouchable by and independent of external turmoil and changes. The immensity of it illustrates however another hard and hopeless reality: each of us is as insignificant as the sunflower seeds. To live on and to keep doing and going is to understand and make peace with such a realization yet at the same time keep up hope and working for the future.


One of the questions I often asked myself: could I ever be doing what Ai is doing without being imprisoned a long time ago? This question intimates myself as much as it does to a lot of people. Many of us attribute Ai’s immunity from complete imprisonment and loss of freedom to the influence of his father, the famed and celebrated poet and a good friend of Mao, Ai Qing. But I think the fundamental and permanent system of immunity Ai has inherited from his family is the spirit of independence and believing in human dignity and integrity. Maybe it’s true that we can’t push the envelope as far as Ai with his privileged background would allow. But if each of us asserts a bit more and requests to know a bit more, the space we can have for ourselves will grow bigger and bigger. This idea, can be exercised in the social space, as well as practiced in the domain of our art profession, to live with less certainty but more inner security. As an independent art critic, I have been inspired by Ai to question and intersect with the power structure of the art system that is not simply about capital but a dangerous appetite for concentration of power and singularity of value marker through my writing. I call for the respect for and our responsibility for encouraging and protecting independence, creativity and intellectuality and by consciously advocating such thoughts in my essays, I foresee the changes of our profession to be more open, more fluid and more inspirational. By changing the art profession, I believe that we make a contribution to the society as well.

[1] Fairy-tale was Ai Weiwei’s contribution to Documenta 12, 2007. For this work, Ai took 1001 Chinese people, which he recruited through his blog and his own social network, to visit Kassel during the exhibition on his expense. Along with the visitors, he also transported 1001 Qing Dynasty wooden chairs to Kassel, where they were scattered all over the exhibition sites. Ai divided the 1001 visitors into five groups and brought them to Kassel in various time slots during three months of the exhibition. The visitors were accommodated in a communal dorm transformed from a former textile mill. Not only did he design their uniformed beds, bed sheets, outfits, suitcases, towers, and have them made in China, but also did he bring along his favourite local cooks to prepare daily meals for them in Kassel. The project cost a mind-blowing amount of $4.28 million.

[2] “Map of China” was made of iron wood (tieli wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing-Dynasty (1644 - 1911), which is a material that Ai has used to create a number of installations and sculptural works.

[3] “Reshaping History” was an exhibition curated by Lv Peng, Zhu Zhu and Gao Qianhui and took place in Beijing from May 4 to May 21, 2010. Subtitled “Chinart from 2000 to 2009”, the exhibition was meant to survey contemporary art produced in China within the past decade extensively and led to the production of a publication meant as a main historic account of this recent period. One of the curators Lv Peng is an art historian that has authored some of the most read history books for contemporary art in China including History of Chinese Contemporary Art: 1990-1999 and A History of Art In Twentieth Century China. The exhibition took place in the basement of the China National Convention Center. Although the convention center is normally a space for fairs, the fact that it’s a governmental institution was also meant to give a certain level of endorsement to the legitimization of contemporary art in China.

[4] Jan Verwoert, “The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image”, e-flux journal #1, December 2008.





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