Ai Weiwei The Medium of Politics

by | Exhibition

Long before we get to art criticism, we have to acknowledge that Ai Weiwei is without doubt the most prominent face of opposition to one of the most powerful governments of the world today. This towering personality and instantly recognisable icon, is known the world over for his heroic resistance to the one-party Chinese superpower. Ai Weiwei’s campaign for human rights and an end to corruption – conducted entirely through the language of conceptual art – has often led to his much publicised detentions, beatings and psychological torture.

Ai Weiwei with one of his photographs from Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015. Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London

Ai Weiwei with one of his photographs from Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015. Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

How peculiar it is therefore, that as an artist his work is much less well known in this country, beyond an installation of his Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010, and the recent exhibition of 50 or so pieces at Blenheim Palace. The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts – billed as the art event of the year – and surveying 22 years of his output, is inevitably quite an eye opener. It is with some considerable curiosity and perhaps a little trepidation – as we surely all want to love the work as much as we love the man – that many will flock to see this show.

But as Ai Weiwei is first and foremost an artist working in a wide range of media – including sculpture, film, performance, and even architecture – is he therefore simply an accidental human rights activist and a reactive if brave victim? In other words, is his well-publicised struggle with the authorities a tragic distraction from an appreciation of his art, and should we therefore view his work separately from his political activities? Many art critics including Matthew Collings have already done so, and measured his art against purely aesthetic considerations, and unsurprisingly therefore found him wanting.

The trials and tribulations of Ai Weiwei have long been far more familiar to us than the physical body of his artistic work. One is tempted to say that his reputation has preceded both him and his work. Until – that is – one realises that his trials and tribulations, his reputation, is his work. To divorce this artist from the political context is to misunderstand not only the man and his work, but also the potential of art and the world we are living in. It is also to overlook the fact that politics for Weiwei is not just a theme but the very medium he is working in. And this is the reason why Weiwei forces us to rethink art in the 21st century.

To divorce this artist from the political context is to misunderstand not only the man and his work, but also the potential of art and the world we are living in.

It is hardly surprising that politics is in his blood. Ai Wewei was suckled on state oppression, having spent his first 19 years in a labour camp, when his father – the famous Chinese poet Ai Qing – was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement, and made to clean toilets. It is therefore not surprising that among the big ideas of this exhibition, that match the scale of the big site-specific installations (including love of country and history, heritage and value), is the overriding theme of political protest against an oppressive regime. And there is much to protest about: Whether it’s the venality and corruption of local government officials in cutting corners in the construction of public buildings, that directly led to the death of thousands people in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008; to the demolition of his substantial studio – that had taken a year to build – by the same local authorities that had invited him to build it – at their expense – in the first place; or his detention without trial for 81 days in 2011, the first 30 of which were in handcuffs, in an attempt to break him psychologically once and for all.

Many of Weiwei’s exhibited works may be viewed as ‘disobedient objects’ of protest, much like the defaced currency, woven banners or political video games that are increasingly a feature of modern political protest movements everywhere. The main difference may be that the latter are largely the product of spontaneous and anonymous folk art, whilst Weiwei’s pieces are made by armies of artisans and labourers and overseen by a titan of the art world.

Works like Surveillance Camera and Video Recorder for example – both masterfully crafted out of marble, to reference Ming dynasty tomb offerings of everyday objects made of precious materials – are Weiwei’s own heavily symbolic disobedient objects. The Surveillance Camera makes reference to the twenty or so government cameras trained on his studio residence in Caochangdi. In counterpoint to that is the Video Recorder, referencing the hand-held camera that Weiwei has frequently used to record many significant events. You may be watching me, taunts Weiwei, but I am also watching you.

Ai Weiwei, Video Recorder, 2010 Marble
Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010

You may be watching me, taunts Weiwei, but I am also watching you.

Images from left to right
Ai Weiwei, Video Recorder, 2010, Marble
Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010, Marble
Images courtesy © Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei, Mask, 2013, Marble image © GDC group

Ai Weiwei, Mask, Marble

What emerges from the exhibition is Weiwei’s skilful manipulation of the medium of politics, turning every reverse into an advantage. And so for example, the deafening silence of the culpable state with regard to its responsibilities following the devastating earthquake, is turned into a tangible and moving sculptural response (‘Straight’); a tabular roll call of dead children, and a filmic record of his findings. Similarly the tragic story of the demolished studio is turned into a series of filmic, photographic and sculptural art works, that are a potent portrayal of injustice.

A powerful case in point is his series of work entitled S.A.C.R.E.D.. Several forbidding looking iron boxes allow voyeuristic glimpses into Wewei’s suffering at the hands of the authorities. He may be glimpsed being interrogated, eating, sleeping, shitting and showering in a small, blindingly lit cell, and always in the company of two intimidatingly uncommunicative guards. Weiwei’s dignified and reverential suffering appears to ironically reference Christ’s stations of the cross, and it is no coincidence therefore to discover that these boxes were exhibited in a Venetian church three years ago.

The baroque atmosphere of an Italian church is also referenced by the gaudy gold wallpaper surrounding the exhibition space, where religious imagery is replaced with the Twitter symbol – as a deceptively vulnerable looking metaphor for popular freedom – menacingly targeted by big brother’s surveillance cameras and decorative swags of handcuffs. Impossible to ignore, yet too big to destroy (one hopes), the all-powerful one-party state is facing its unlikely nemesis in Ai Weiwei, who is perhaps as deceptively vulnerable as that little tweeting bird.

Ai Weiwei’s most successful creation is undoubtedly himself. In him the artist has fully transcended the plastic arts in an apotheotic act of liberation. No wonder the ham-fisted authorities have also found themselves consistently wrong-footed in their dealing with this artist.

Image: Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing, taken in April 2015
Photo © Harry Pearce/Pentagram

Ai Weiwei’s charismatic personality and features are now completely emblematic of the downtrodden artist, and the many award-winning films, and rolling news of his current status are carefully followed by an empathetic international audience. In China – despite government attempts to marginalise him – he is a powerful role model for plugged-in artists and politicised youth and a growing figurehead for change.

It is both his personal bravery and resilience, as well as his confident fluency in the language of post-modern creative thinking, that has enabled him to outwit the omnipotent but unimaginative Communist party at their own game. Weiwei’s twelve year stay in the U.S. was undoubtedly a turning point in his career. There he became familiar with the work of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, and began creating conceptual art by his interventions with readymade objects. Tellingly he has cited Marcel Duchamp as “the most, if not the only, influential figure” in his art practice. Whereas in the West the once anti-materialist conceptual art movement has consumed itself, by become now fully commodified and shorn of meaning, Weiwei’s work remains focused on the bigger picture of China (frequently represented in outline in his work) and its future.

Ai Wei wei show Royal academy
Ai Wei wei sacred Royal academy
Ai Weiwei, twetter wallpaper, Marble
Ai Weiwei, chairs

But this David and Goliath story for modern times is complicated by its post-modern context. It is as if this modern Chinese David (Weiwei the political champion), is the avatar of his own creator (Weiwei the artist), using the international language of conceptual art, its excoriating power of irony and its properties of nihilistic subversion, to fight a very real battle for freedom. Weiwei is both the machine and the ghost within his ambitious art project, whose medium is big boy politics. This however is not a virtual war-game, but a dangerous real one with blood and scars and plenty of suffering.

In many ways Ai Weiwei’s art is a kind of Agitprop in reverse, turning the tables on the one-party state; and China is the ultimate readymade on which his interventions are being made. Now that – with the help of this exhibition – we have a fuller picture of the man and his art, we must indeed reevaluate the potential of art in the 21st century. Through his heroic commitment to human rights, art and China, Wewei has given truth to that formerly hypothetical debating favourite, that far from just imitating life, art can in fact change the world.

An evening with Ai Weiwei.
The Royal Academy’s Artistic Director Tim Marlow talks to Ai Weiwei about his artistic influences, the role of politics in his practice and his work within the context of Chinese heritage and culture.

Now that – with the help of this exhibition – we have a fuller picture of the man and his art, we must indeed reevaluate the potential of art in the 21st century. Through his heroic commitment to human rights, art and China, Wewei has given truth to that formerly hypothetical debating favourite, that far from just imitating life, art can in fact change the world.

Image: Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12, Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy © Ai Weiwei

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