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Ai Weiwei: an enemy of the state

by David Cozy

AI WEIWEI’S BLOG: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, by Ai Weiwei. Edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy. The MIT Press, 2011, 307 pp., $24.95 (paper)

The Chinese government hates the artist Ai Weiwei, and it’s easy to see why. The artful criticism he posted on his blog from 2006 until the government shut it down in 2009 is, like his art, relentlessly honest. He pulled no punches, and he did so under a very real threat of imprisonment (as we recently saw) or worse; this makes the “bravery” of ranters in more open countries seem just a little less impressive.

That Ai continues his criticism even after the 81 days of his imprisonment, during which he was interrogated at least 50 times (or so it is reported: Ai is forbidden to talk about the conditions of his detention), is a further demonstration of his bravery and his commitment to truth. He is, in short, a hero.

When one considers that Ai’s artistic antecedents are, on the one hand, Marcel Duchamp, and on the other, Andy Warhol this is a bit surprising. Though one may love Duchamp’s and Warhol’s work, and understand these artists’ importance in the history of modern art, one is unlikely to turn to either for political agitation or political wisdom. Ai’s blog — and, more obliquely, his work — is rich in both. Further, although he claims to be neither an intellectual nor a skilled writer, his blog testifies to the depth of his thought and learning, and also to his skill with words, skill that shines through in Lee Ambrozy’s translation. There is a quotable line, an inspiration, a belly laugh — rueful, for the most part — on every page.

There is perspicuity, for example, in Ai’s summation of the impact of globalization on China: “China and the world were mutually astonished to discover each other,” and also in his description of America: “The United States government is like two kinds of dogs: it is servile to its residents, and fierce to outsiders.”

There is inspiration in his conviction that art and thought are the natural possessions of all who are allowed to be human. “After I created some objects,” he writes, “people said I was an artist; because I like to talk, people say that I’m on top of trends or that I’m up-to-the-minute. But all of these traits emerged from my most fundamental needs, because I’m a human and therefore I think …”

These lines would probably make it past even characters as notoriously touchy as the Chinese censors. The belly laughs — as is usually the case — are more dangerous. Ai’s entry on public art, for example, even as it elicits a guffaw, may seem more like a Western artist aiming to shock the bourgeoisie than a Chinese dissident criticizing his society. “The only difference between public art and ordinary art,” Ai writes, “resides in the fact that public art is placed in a nonprivate space. This makes you unable to do certain things while beside the artwork, but at night, when no one’s around, you can still urinate beside it.” Ambrozy’s footnote reminds us of the Leninist dictum, appropriated by Mao, that “art should serve the public.” Ai’s criticism, it becomes clear, aims to do more than upset the uptight.

Ambrozy has selected the blog posts that make up this book from the more than 2,700 that Ai posted, and as one follows Ai over the three years, one sees him, in sadness, frustration, and anger, grow more bluntly political as the days go by.

The collapse of thousands of shoddily constructed schools, for example, in the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, and the Chinese government’s response to the catastrophe — just one of a long string of disasters — turns Ai into a Jeremiah: “How foolish and obscene must a person be to lie to the families of the deceased, to bully parents who suffer the loss of their children and their ruined futures? They cover eyes, stuff throats, wiretap phones, track whereabouts, and threaten, they buy people off, detain, beat, and persecute common people.”

That’s the Chinese government he’s writing about. Is it any wonder that, 16 days after he published this, they closed his blog? Ai, however, was able to transmute his rage into art. He has said that the image that stayed with him from the aftermath of the quake were the children’s backpacks he had seen, abandoned among the rubble. Thus, in a solo show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the entire facade was covered with student backpacks arranged to spell out a sentence the mother of one of one of the children who died in the quake wrote in a letter to the artist: “She lived happily in this world for seven years.”

In this work, as in his blog, Ai Weiwei tells the truth, refuses to allow us to forget. He is a beacon, not just for his countrymen, but for all of us.