Lisson Gallery, London, until 16 July
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads
Somerset House, London, until 26 June
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
The artist was conspicuously absent from the opening of the exhibitions following his arrest on 3 April by the Chinese authorities. In the 10 weeks that have passed, nothing has been revealed of his whereabouts, although his wife has been allowed to see him. Still the Chinese government has given no satisfactory explanation for his arrest. The international art world has shown solidarity towards Ai and significant concern for the issues surrounding his disappearance, for politics are implicit in all of his work. Yang Lian, a poet of international stature, and a friend of Ai’s since the 1980s joins me in conversation in London, to discuss the art and political significance of Ai Weiwei’s controversial work.
A wooden coffin constructed by craftsmen for Ai from the recovered wood from Qing Dynasty Temples; a surveillance camera made from marble; and Han Dynasty ceramic vases dipped by Ai in industrial paint, all presented in the neutral gallery space of Lisson Gallery, allow a British audience to observe a living critique of contemporary Chinese culture, indifferent to its complexities, and perhaps also unaware of the contradictions inherent both in Ai’s career and Chinese contemporary art. Ai has fulfilled major commissions in this country; his career is characterised by an international orbit. He enjoys an enviable status in many western countries, yet chooses to remain living in Beijing. His arrest has therefore triggered a great outcry from artists and art institutions around the world. Indeed in the west he has become a symbol of Chinese human rights abuse, and in turn his case plays a role in the ongoing debate over China’s position in global terms in the 21st century, as its economic power grows disproportionately to the redress of political and humanitarian issues.
I began by asking Yang Lian whether he found it at all strange to see the manner in which the British press and art world had responded to Ai Weiwei’s arrest when they and other intellectuals had had such a long association with the Chinese authorities. Ai has, after all, long navigated a controversial path – that of success at the highest levels at the time of the Beijing Olympics (he played a collaborative role in Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest building), to his often dogmatic blog (recently banned in China) where he argues vehemently against the Chinese regime, the lack of artistic freedom and the evident lack of human rights for individuals living there.
Yang Lian points out that the west has always been fascinated by communist China, a fascination that turned into suspicion during the cold war when extreme views prevailed in close tandem with an overt lack of information about political activity, art and life. It is against this background that the west’s attention to the work of Ai Weiwei is founded. Yang Lian is concerned that sensitive lines need to be drawn between the political principles expressed by Ai Weiwei (the man) and the quality of his artworks, which require analysis in relation to the depth of thinking and artistic creativity in form and language, “where one attempts to transform the energy of thinking into the quality of creation”. The existing critique of Chinese contemporary art by critics and institutions in the west appears to equate “the foremost or most dangerous dissident in the art world” (in the eyes of the authorities, hence his arrest) with the “highest profile (therefore the best) Chinese artist”. In turn the inherently ambiguous nature of performance art as a form of protest (in this case interpreted as political dissidence in China) requires clarification in a global context where the meaning is clearly projected by the “viewer-cum-authority”.
Yang describes the present position:
Ai Weiwei’s art is primarily a forum for political action, his provocative statements finding an enthusiastic response in the west where he is championed as an artistic dissident. The views in Britain and the US towards autocratic regimes inform the eager reception of his art. But in championing his courage as a political dissident, the critique of his work has become blurred and misleading.
A parallel can be made with the now historic case of Mao Goes Pop, China Post '89, a group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and the Victoria National Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, in 1993, after which the artists included were feted for their political daring to the exclusion of a critique of their art. The art works then achieved huge prices in the west. They were the only images of the Cultural Revolution known to the west, but the western exotic of Chinese art is no danger to the Chinese authorities. The Mao Goes Pop artists some years later became the establishment, holding major positions in the Academy of Contemporary Arts, China. In championing the unique status of Ai Weiwei as an artist in China, the west is devaluing the value of the artist as an individual who is uniquely able to reveal the goodness and humanity of a society, an important issue for all Chinese art and artists. Generalised western views on China perpetuate the myths surrounding the “Museum of the Communist Estate”, which belonged to the cold war. The challenge to the west in both political and artistic terms is to see China as an organic part of the international community; Chinese issues are issues of the world. The real question we should be asking, especially since Ai’s arrest is, “What is the individual’s role in this, a totally powerless world?”
Yang Lian emphasises the necessity then to separate the added political value in the west that Ai’s work per se achieves, from the more important pieces in his oeuvre, such as Sunflower Seeds, and his politically motivated writings on art. The smashing of a classical urn in the photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), for example, Yang views as:
anger towards the Communist Party for its nihilistic cultural position. A performance to destroy classical art, however, is in isolation a shallow response, yet the meaning of the Sunflower Seeds installation has really unsettled the authorities, and is a work of great importance on a number of levels. Sunflower Seeds connects with China’s ancient tradition of porcelain manufacture. In the process of the making of millions of seeds, 1,500 people were employed in the city of Jingdezhen. In the period after the Olympic Games Ai’s art practice changed dramatically. In 2008 he openly criticised the Communist Party and the government as a whole, for exploiting and misusing propaganda. Anyone who has a deeper knowledge of politics and culture in China is surprised that his work is considered in the West to be surprising.
During the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, Chairman Mao Zedong was represented as the sun with the Chinese people as sunflowers turning their faces toward him, even though during that period, Mao ordered artists and intellectuals into exile in the country where they were “sentenced” to hard labour. The millions of seeds in Ai’s vast installation, also refer to lost potential (unopened seeds cannot flower, a “ceramic river”1 cannot flow) as a consequence of the devastating earthquakes in China in 2008; it particularly draws attention to the 5,000 children who died when badly built state schools collapsed, in the worst hit area of Sichuan province’s Beichuan county. Indeed a further 10,000 were injured and 80% of the buildings in the province were flattened, including eight schools and a hospital. Thousands of artists live in Sichuan Province and they did nothing to protest; Ai Weiwei was the only artist who had the courage to speak out.
The Lisson Gallery’s survey of Ai’s work over the past 10 years is by virtue of his “ready-made” works, somewhat enigmatic. Perhaps the most visually striking and also the most disturbing are the installations of Colored Vases (2010) and (2009) groupings of Han Dynasty vases (200DC–220AD) that have been dipped by the artist in industrial paint. The desecration of classical art is intended as a comment on the destruction of artistic and intellectual values during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the extreme Chinese political movement where hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and artists (including Ai Weiwei and Yang Lian and their families) were sent to the country for hard labour, ostensibly to cleanse them of independent thought; and on the recent surge in commodity manufacture for the rest of the world. It pays homage to Marcel Duchamp whose work Ai discovered whilst living in New York. Where Ai smashed a classical pot in a performance piece in 1997 he now turns his ready-made into an object of kitsch. If the western art market is now the judge, (as it was after Mao Goes Pop) many complex issues of Chinese culture are being marginalised or over-looked. The sheer scale and diversity of art production in China is a daunting prospect for the west to negotiate. The audacious art practice of Ai, itself a mix of Chinese exotic and Duchampian wit, is symptomatic of the need for many western individuals and institutions to be flattered in the art process, and for Chinese market forces to overshadow genuine artistic aspirations.
The political courage of Ai Weiwei should not be equated or confused with the uneven and at worst prosaic ready-made artwork. Although Coffin (2005) is crafted from sacred or meaningful material (Ironwood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty) it is an ambiguous piece – more Japanese in terms of the design, for no Chinese coffin is angular, rather it is rounded. Coffin is an abstracted form intended to create an unsettling juxtaposition of meaning, where the viewer can be amused but also alienated. Yang is concerned that since the artist’s arrest, pieces such as Coffin are endowed with far greater significance than intended; that they are essentially enigmatic, formalist works that display the technical mastery of the artisans.
In this context Yang Lian points out:
Together with his work Ai is a unique figure in China in terms of his political action and performance art pieces. Through his life, which has most recently resulted in imprisonment, he brings these issues together. The Sunflower Seeds project links a communal soul with an appropriate language, which plays a tiny but key role. The making of each small piece can be seen to parallel the devaluation of the individual in China and also in the wider world.
Ai Weiwei’s arrest came as no surprise to me. If he had protested on the streets, this would have happened long ago. But he played the dangerous but clever game of art and politics for a long time. It was the government attitude to him that changed when they realised that he was admired by the young and in the context of dramatically changed world politics, where in Tunisia and Egypt a small revolt was fuelled by social networking sites and the internet, the Chinese authorities saw Ai as capable of inspiring such revolution. If you play with a tiger you cannot guarantee that the tiger will always be your friend.
Yang Lian expresses his anger and sadness about the arrest of Ai Weiwei in the poem, A Sunflower Seed’s Negation Lines: For Ai Weiwei in which he refers to Du Fu, (Tang Dynasty, 712–770) one of the few most famous poets from the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry, whose concepts of reality are utterly timeless. Yang thus links Ai Weiwei and himself to Du Fu: the essential humanity of Ai’s present position is endowed with the profound poetic soul of China. According to Yang:
Du Fu’s poetry constitutes the richest and deepest, portable universe. We should be the incarnations of him; the depths of his poetic sensibility can be transformed to the present.
Artists and poets of Ai Weiwei and Yang Lian’s generation started their creative lives during the Cultural Revolution, where their independent thoughts were severely punished. Personal introspection only existed in relation to the Cultural Revolution. The ancient wisdom of Du Fu becomes a touchstone for creative life, the ballast for the artist who continues to create in spite of the “ceramic river”, made by fire in contrast to a genuine flow of water with its connotations of enlightenment and transcendence.