When talking about the work of artists such as 艾未未 (Ai WeiWei) it is not enough to talk about the work we can see in photos, galleries, museums and magazines. Ai is also an activist artist, one that uses action and non-traditional forms of art to express his ideas, this is also considered his art. While there are very little formal art critic articles of this kind of work we can find political and social writings and even artistic articles that talk about Ai’s work as an activist. This paper will look at the three aspects of Ai and his work in an attempt to see if his success is that of great art, or if his art is being considered of greater value simply because he is a strong activist artist in China.
It is possible that Ai’s art activism started because what happened to his family when he was young. Ai was born in Beijing, to Ai Qing, his father and Chinese poet, and Gao Ying, his mother. Ai’s father who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution for his writings was sent off to a labor camp in Xinjiang with his wife and Ai who also spent five years there. (“798 District”)
Many museums, galleries and even art magazines in the West call Ai as a key figure at the forefront of contemporary art in China. That would not be the case of most newspapers and magazines in China, which are controlled by the government; they usually refer to Ai as a criminal or dissident against the government. When “Art Review magazine named Ai number one in their annual Power 100 list. The decision was criticized by the Chinese authorities. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin responded, “China has many artists who have sufficient ability. We feel that a selection that is based purely on a political bias and perspective has violated the objectives of the magazine”. (Ai) So what is it about this artist work that causes enough controversy to make him an international figure? Is his work really that good or is his work given more value because the media simply focus on him due to his arrest surrounding his protest of events in China? To answer these questions we have to look at Ai’s work beyond the social, political and cultural criticism and look at his sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, and photography.
Many newspapers, like the New York Times, and art magazines as well as critics call Ai the leading figure of contemporary art in China, but Ai’s work while his own style which is new, is influenced by and compatible to artists of the Dada, surrealist and modernist movements. We have a tendency to call anything being done today as contemporary art, but the fact is that China, while it has contemporary artists, has not gone through its own modernist movement, it would be more realistic to refer to Ai as one of the leading figures of Eastern Modernism in China.
Some of Ai’s most memorable works include breaking and painting Neolithic and Han vases, Reconstructing ancient furniture, sunflower seeds and flipping the bird at national monuments and symbols of government, it is these works that I will focus on in an attempt to show that Ai’s work is not overstated simply because of his disputes with the Chinese government.
Ai’s most memorable early works of art activism, which is his breaking and painting valuable Chinese vases, was a statement about the countries care and respect for its history and culture before the Cultural Revolution. There are critics and newspapers that call the work a social statement about the political miss-care of the countries history, others that state that Ai is fearless artist speaking against injustice. (“ArtAsiaPacific Magazine Blog”) All this may be true and than again it may not, the truth is that no one really knows if the vases are real or just great replicas which can be found all over China. What makes the work not only powerful but also successful is the Chinese governments little care or uproar of this relics being destroyed in the name of art. It speaks the laissez-faire way in which the Chinese government holds its historical culture. Had the government been outraged or even stopped him during this point would the work have been as powerful? It is only for the viewer to decide.
Ai’s flipping the bird at historical places of importance has had less talk about it as it is seem merely by many to be a political statement and less of his art. This may be so, and maybe the least known of his works, but holds as much a statement of Ai as his other works do. The only work of Ai’s talked about as little as his flipping the bird, is his work on the Birds Nest for the 2008 Olympics. This is not due to it being less important than his other works, but to the Chinese government not willing to give Ai credit for his work due to his speaking out about events surrounding free speech and equal treatment in China.
The work that Ai is most known for is his sunflower seeds. There are varied positions on the reason for the success in this work. The problem with understanding the work is the same with understanding any of Ai’s work; you also have to understand the culture. When you are looking from the outside it is easy to be judgmental of a work of art, but without understanding the story or the purpose behind a work of art can we truly understand it? There are those that believe that art should be ambiguous and speak for itself, but not all art should be so easily understood, instead sometimes art needs to be explored and examined for more than the visual aspects but for what it represents.
Some reviews like the Huff Post, the London Times and some art magazines have looked at the idea of the sunflower seeds as not only successful, but a the biggest year for the artist. Though the reviews were positive they lacked any real critic of the work as they focused on the events surrounding Ai’s arrest more than they did the work itself. Which is where the problem with reading the reviews come in, many of them have become more about the arrest and release of Ai than focusing on if the work itself has any merit.
There are others like Time Out New York that has had a less than a favorable review of Ai’s work. While the article does focus on the ideas that it has become hard to distinguish the difference between Ai the artist and Ai the activist, it also has a hard time believing that his work with sunflowers is more than a gimmick. They state that “Ai’s work is also afflicted with the symptoms of what you might call global art-star disease: a scale and level of fabrication that is designed to impress viewers rather than transport them.” This is a harsh statement considering that first of all the reviewer, Howard Halle, never saw the exhibit at the Tate, and second he seems to not understand the purpose behind the way the work was created.
This goes back to it is hard to understand this work without understanding the culture. Halle compares Ai to that of an art dictator, stating “In truth, he holds real power over them, and in this respect he isn’t simply someone speaking out against injustice: He’s offering himself as an alternative to the existing order. No wonder the authorities are freaked out by the guy.” The fact is that Ai has been providing jobs for many of those people in the town with his projects because of the tradition of the town itself. Jingdezhen has been the center of porcelain production for many generations. Creating some of the finest works in porcelain for some of the greatest empires in China. After the Cultural Revolution the town had been all but forgotten by the government as many other similar towns have been. Ai’s role in the film was nothing more than any artist for a project like this, ensuring that the project was being done not only in the same style as original porcelain production, but also to try and share his appreciation for the people and their work.
Part of the disappointment in the exhibition may come from the fact that the exhibit had to be closed due to dangerous dust being produced by people walking and rolling in the sunflower seeds. There are those who questioned why Ai did not warn the locals of the dangers to making this kind of work, or for not informing the gallery that this could happen. First the people of this village have been doing this work for generations and fully understand the dangers in producing the work in this way, also as Ai is an activist artist, who is not to say that this was not a statement from the artist on the dangerous work conditions in China?
The use of sunflower seeds themselves have been discussed in different ways from critics, some who believe that Ai used sunflower seeds because they where the favorite food of Chairman Mao, but the fact is that while Mao did enjoy sunflower seeds, their presence in the paintings and works surrounding Mao where meant to represent the people of China and not Mao or the government. While Ai never comes out and states it directly his use of sunflower seeds being made by a forgotten people speak more to representing the people of China than anything else.
While I have tried in this paper to judge Ai’s work for what it is and not simply as an extension of his activism it is difficult to do so. Some of it may be from the fact that there is so many questions surrounding Ai since his arrest in 2011, but for me it is due to the fact that it is hard not to find the activism in Ai’s work. When you have been to China and seen what it is like there, it is easy to find the meaning behind the work, more so than those that have not been. This is not to say that Ai’s work is not successful and if it does suffer from the all-star disease it is not due to his failure in trying to tell the story, but our inability to not be able to look at the work for more than another attempt in contemporary art. As stated by many art is subjective, and the failure or success of the work will vary, but one thing that can not be denied is that whether he means to or not Ai is getting people to not only talk about his work, but to cloud it in mystery when it comes to the meaning and symbolism in his art.
. “Biography of Ai WeiWei.” 798 District. 798, 2012. Web. 21 Apr 2012. <http://www.798district.com/798/en/artists/a/aiweiwei/01_bioexh/>.
Ai, WeiWei. “Biography of AiWeiWei.” Wikipedia on Ai’s Facebook Page. N.p., 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei>.
“DROPPING THE URN (CERAMIC WORKS, 5000 BCE – 2010CE) AI WEIWEI.” ArtAsiaPacific Magazine Blog. ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, 09 2010. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/70/AiWeiweiDroppingTheUrnCeramicWorks5000BCE2010CE>.
Halle, Howard. “Review: Ai Weiwei, “Sunflower Seeds”.” Time Out New York [New York] 18 01 2012, n. pag. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <http://www.timeout.com/newyork/art/review-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds>.