Escape from propaganda

Unavoidably political, Ai Weiwei equates the aesthetic and moral

by Julian Worrall

Artist, architect, designer, photographer, curator, writer, editor, activist — Ai Weiwei is many things. This multiplicity of means all serve a united end that centers on the existential question: What does human freedom mean in China today?

“According to What?” a major solo exhibition that opened at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum on July 25, presents 26 of Ai’s works, most made over the past decade. All present different ways of approaching this question — works of art that are alternately wry, provocative, haunting, beautiful and always deeply political.

Ai’s political consciousness was “unavoidable.” Born in 1957, the son of the then-persecuted, now-revered Chinese poet Ai Qing, Ai’s childhood was spent in the remote Western provinces, where his family had been banished to during the Cultural Revolution as “enemies of the people.” His first political decision was to become an artist.

“My work has always been political, because the choice of being an artist is political in China,” says Ai. “The first choice I made was to try to escape the Communist Party’s propaganda.

“To me, to be political means you associate your work with a larger number of people’s living conditions, and that includes both mental and physical conditions. And you try to use your work to affect the situation.”

After attending film school in Beijing in the late ’70s, Ai first achieved notice through involvement in The Star, a grouping of avant-garde artists. Ai decamped to New York City in 1981 and spent the next decade absorbing the city’ energies and illuminations: enrolling at Parsons School of Design; discovering Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns; translating Allen Ginsberg; and always with a camera in hand, documenting.

Since returning to China in 1993, Ai’s profile has steadily risen to the present position of him being among the most celebrated of Chinese contemporary artists. His artworks, ranging from photography and sculpture to large-scale installations and performance pieces, have been a major presence at the most significant international biennales and art fairs over the past decade. Ai has also developed an active architectural practice, operating from FAKE, his cheekily named studio at Caochangdi in east Beijing, which has been registering and intervening in the dramatic transformations to China’s cities.

The most spectacular achievement of this aspect of his activities has been the collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron in the design of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing; but FAKE also documents the voids and “provisional landscapes” of China’s rampant urbanization.

Ai’s political commitment has found increasingly direct expression through his online blog and forays into activist territory, such as his recent (and ultimately suppressed) effort to collect and disseminate the names of the thousands of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Ai is well on the way to sagehood — the living embodiment of China’s aesthetic and moral conscience.

The show at the Mori Art Museum, put together under the direction of chief curator Kataoka Mami, displays material from all of these domains of Ai’s practice. Divided into three thematically defined sections: “Fundamental Forms and Volumes”; “Structure and Craftsmanship”; and “Reforming and Inheriting Tradition,” the show presents a survey of the artist’s development, orientations and activities. While most of the works have been shown before, six have been created specifically for this show — his first museum exhibition on such a scale.

Ai is famously irreverent — he has been dubbed the “Scholar Clown”. But his humor has been consistently laced with a savagely biting edge, evident in works such as the “Study of Perspective” series of photographs, in which he gives the finger to architectural symbols of political and cultural authority such as the White House and the Eiffel Tower.

Provocation has been a powerful strategy in carving out a space for Ai’s operations independent of the state and cultural institutions. He notoriously upstaged the officially organized Third Shanghai Biennale in 2000 by curating “Fuck Off,” an uncompromising group show of works by 46 contemporary Chinese artists. This was quickly shut down by the authorities, but became the sensation of the biennale. One of the works from that show, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a photographic triptych showing Ai releasing a 2,000 year-old urn that shatters, is on display here. But, perhaps it’s inevitable given Ai’s present stature and as this is an institutional exhibition, that the acerbic taste of provocation has been largely filtered and drained from the Mori show.

What is most surprising about what remains is its sheer beauty. Mathematically pure sculptural works such as “Cubic Meter Tables,” “Cube in Ebony,” and “Untitled,” a 32-sided regular polyhedron that Leonardo da Vinci once drew, reveal a sculptural sensibility attuned to harmonies of material and proportion, and a receptivity to the powers of abstraction. This sensitivity pays aesthetic dividends in works that invite more complex, layered interpretations, in which figurations of nation, tradition, and memory are in play.

“Ton of Tea” and “Teahouse,” works made from compressed tea leaves, employ these pure forms in a material literally redolent of Chineseness. The abstraction present in the concept of China itself is evoked in “Map of China” and “China Log,” two heavy blocks assembled from the wood of demolished temples. Here “China” is rendered as an abstract, convoluted outline defining the boundary of solid and void in the very flesh of Chinese tradition.

China can be seen to emerge as the central black hole that the galaxy of Ai’s work continually orbits. Both apparently aesthetic and overtly political operations converge on this entity. Last week, when I asked him about how he conceives the political role of the artist in contemporary China, and how aesthetic questions of beauty, craft and presence relate to this, Ai responded as follows:

“I think all aesthetic judgments, all the aesthetic choices we are making, are moral choices. They cannot escape the moral dimension in the broader sense. It has to relate to the philosophical understanding of who we are and how so-called ‘art and culture’ functions in today’s world.

“And to what degree it helps us to change our life, or even to sense our existence, to really evaluate ‘why?’ I think those questions cannot be escaped. Sometimes in history it’s more hidden. Somewhere these can be very personal and individual questions. But in certain times and certain places, your existence has to be associated with the other people’s situation. You have to make a reaction to the living conditions. It’s not avoidable. You cannot just be blind about what is happening there. Such is the case in China.”

Contemporary China emerges in Ai’s works as a wounded, broken entity which in its statist guise is deeply repressive and destructive of the individual. His most powerful pieces engage directly with themes of the destruction of tradition, the storm of progress and the fragility of memory. Strong works in this show exploring such themes include “Fragments,” a tortured structure built from pieces of temples demolished to make way for urban development, and “Kippe,” a haunting assemblage of firewood, temple ornaments and gymnastic parallel bars recalling childhood landscapes and memories. Human loss is registered in the new work “Snake Ceiling,” a coiled serpent made from children’s backpacks, alluding to the tragic deaths of thousands of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

“In talking about memory and our history, I think our humanity, especially in China, is cut. Cut, broken, separated,” says Ai. “If we have a character from our history and memory, the character is broken, it’s shattered.

“It can never really hold up any ideology and aesthetic or moral structure there. It is all broken or mixed and is still in a very confused current condition. And my work of course reflects this.”

Rumination on loss often skirts the swamps of nostalgia. But Ai’s work speaks of the intimacy of the kiss between destruction and creation, between fragments of the past and possible futures.

“Tradition is only a readymade. It’s for us to make a new gesture — to use it as a reference, more as a starting point than conclusion,” says Ai. “Of course, there are very different attitudes and interpretations about our past and our memory of it. And ours is never a complete one, but is broken. In China, but also in my practice.”

“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is showing at the Mori Art Museum till Nov. 8; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tues. till 5 p.m.).For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit Julian Worrall is assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Waseda University.