Ai Weiwei – A Man in the Way

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Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases, 2006 Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) with industrial paint, dimensions variable Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, The Royal Academy of Arts, 19 September – 13 December 2015

I’m writing this in the run-up to Ai Wewei’s already much touted exhibition, soon opening at the Royal Academy here in London. All the indications are that this is going to be an absolutely massive media event. Yet there are also some indications, visible in more conservative parts of the press – both by ‘C’ and small ‘c’ – that enthusiasm for this globally famous Chinese cultural phenomenon is starting to diminish.

First came a piece in The Spectator, in their space reserved for dissenters, entitled ‘Ai Weiwei: the perfect Asian artist for lazy western curators’. This followed on from a piece that appeared in The New Republic Written by the respected American critic Jed Perl, it was headed ‘Noble and Ignoble – Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist’. Perl witheringly remarked: ‘With Ai, one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinising begins’. In the same year, the influential Italian curator Francesco Bonami, a fan of both Maurizio Cattelan and Damien Hirst, took up the cudgels against Weiwei on the influential website Artsy. ‘I hate Ai Weiwei’, he said. ‘I think he should be put in jail for his art, and not for his dissidence … lukewarm dissidence, because a real dissident, you don’t hear them any longer, you know? They just throw away the keys … I don’t think he’s helped the real dissidents, and I think he exploits his dissidence in favour of promoting his art’.

The article in The Spectator was almost immediately followed up by one in The Sunday Times. Written by Christopher Goodwin, and tellingly placed in the ‘World News’ section rather than in the Culture Supplement, It more or less directly accused the artist of having made ‘a secret bargain with Chinese officials to regain his passport’.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio,                                 Image courtesy Ai Weiwei© Ai Weiwei

It will perhaps be remembered that the recent return of Weiwei’s passport by the Chinese authorities was attended by the need to get a visa, or visas, not only in order to go to Germany, the artist’s first stop, and a country where he has both personal connections and a long-established reputation, but to come on from there to London, to attend the opening of his show. This promptly caused a little kerfuffle of its own. British officialdom was caught on the hop. Apparently fearful that Ai Weiwei’s visit might overlap with a high profile state visit from China’s president, Xi Jinping, due in London in October, Weiwei was offered only a 20-day visa, rather than a 6-month one. A change that was made on the grounds that he had an undeclared ‘criminal conviction’ on his record.

No such formally registered conviction exists, despite Weiwei’s frequent clashes with the Chinese authorities and his periods in detention or under house arrest. They do things differently in China. Weiwei had several conversations on the subject, both with the UK visas and immigration department and with our Beijing embassy, attempting to clarify the situation. Given how adept the artist has long been in handling his public relations, the Brits on the spot should have known better than to try to thwart him. An immediate uproar ensued, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was forced into a humiliating public climb down. Chinese officialdom is not the only officialdom that has tried to grapple with Ai Weiwei and failed.

This gives at least one clue as to why the artist is a more interesting figure than the detractors listed above like to make out. I have to confess that I started out more or less on their side. I have quite a long-standing personal connection with the Chinese contemporary art world, and despite my lack of the language I understand its basic structures and attitudes reasonably well, from first hand experience. In addition a book of mine, Movements in Art Since 1945, was pirated in China – it must be said with my encouragement – before the Chinese government signed up to the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention in 1992. So I can claim to have played a minor role in introducing the then newly burgeoning contemporary art world in China to recent Western ideas. Institutions such as The China Academy and its sister, the rather more conservative Central Academy, based in Beijing, exercise huge influence in China, which, historically – with its literati culture, has always been a country friendly to academic structures of various kinds. Ai Weiwei often likes to present himself as the sworn enemy of these traditional structures, but he has in fact taught at the China Academy.

What singles the artist out, particularly when viewed in a Chinese context, is his emphasis not only on the individual but also on individualism – doing his own thing. Historically, Chinese society has never been big on that, though it does have a tradition of reclusive and eccentric sages. Weiwei, however, does not keep himself to himself, no wonder the Chinese government often seems to think of him as a dangerous alien force, slippery and exasperatingly difficult to control. For them, he is an obstreperous child, one who wilfully and repeatedly throws stones into what might otherwise be a smoothly tranquil pond. At the same time, paradoxically, he is the leader and source of numerous co-operative ventures, where he seems more than usually ready to turn the people he is working with loose, to get on with things on their own terms.

At times Ai Weiwei has been written off by Western critics as a strangely belated Dadaist or a great-grandson of Marcel Duchamp whom Weiwei certainly admires. There is for example a famous early work of Weiwei’s – Marcel Duchamp’s profile, re-shaped from a wire coat hanger. He also professes to have been greatly influenced by the work of Jasper Johns. I think what he means by this is nothing at all to do with Johns’ subtle and refined attitude to technique. There is no equivalent in his work of Johns’ use of wax encaustic. What Weiwei took from Johns, and also from Warhol, during his youthful period living in New York, was their appropriation of familiar, even over-familiar images, which were transformed by changing their context. This particular kind of sleight of hand was the first phase of the current cult of ‘appropriation’, which raises so many insoluble questions about what we should – or indeed must – accept as ‘art’.

Yet in a broader sense our self-congratulatory pre-occupation with the things in Weiwei’s work that come from us – from the Western Modernist and Post Modernist tradition – seems increasingly irrelevant, when one looks at Weiwei’s career in its Chinese context. His themes are profoundly Chinese, and deeply rooted in Chinese history. Some of his best-known works are the two series of heads of beasts from the Chinese zodiac, modelled on those that once adorned a mechanical fountain that adorned the imperial Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing – a complex looted and destroyed by French and British troops in 1860, during the Second Opium War. For the Chinese, Chinese intellectuals in particular, this episode is emblematic of perhaps the most humiliating period in China’s history, when the ‘celestial empire’ was powerless to act against European colonialism. Ai Weiwei is not the only Chinese contemporary artist to have been drawn to this subject matter. Xu Jiang, the accomplished painter who is current President of the China Academy, and who is also as it happens a favourite nephew of Jiang Zemin, former President of the Republic of China (1993-2003), has made an impressive series of western-style depictions of the palace ruins. The irony wrapped within both of these enterprises is that the section of the palace that survives today in ruins was the work of European Jesuit architects, and the ambitious fountain was designed by them.

The difference between Ai Weiwei and Xu Jiang can be very simply defined. Xu Jiang is officially influential within the structures of the Chinese state (and, it must be said, exercises it for the good of his students and of fellow artists working within China). But he is comparatively little known outside. Ai Weiwei has become a world celebrity. If this celebrity existed only in the West, the regime would perhaps have found it easy to suppress him altogether. That it has failed to do so, or is reluctant to do so, must be attributed to something that is entirely of our own time, but not necessarily all that much to do with the Western art world as we usually define it. The panjandrums of that art world may snipe or praise, approve or disapprove, but essentially they are marginal to the story. What has counted and continues to count is Ai Weiwei’s mastery of social media.

Here it is worth offering some quotes from a little book entitled Weiwei-isms, modelled on Mao’s Little Red Book, and put out by a very grand academic publisher, the Princeton University Press edited by Larry Warsh. On the back cover one finds this in gold letters: ‘Everything is art. Everything is politics’.

Inside there are the three following aphorisms, all on the same page:

‘Only with the Internet can a peasant I have never met hear my voice and I can learn what’s on his mind. A fairy tale has come true’.

‘The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that’.

‘The Internet is the best thing that could have happened to China’.

In the context of these comments all arguments about whether Ai Weiwei is a good artist or a bad artists, or not an artist at all, tend to be irrelevant. He is an artist that represents a paradigm shift.

By Edward Lucie-Smith