Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei may be China's most famous dissident -- in fact he may be the only Chinese dissident many westerners can name, especially western art lovers. He is certainly China's most famous artist. He is famous both for his inventive installations, films, and photographs and the long game of chicken he has played with the Chinese authorities. For years he danced along the limits of what was acceptable, goading the government and sometimes frankly daring them to arrest him. And arrest him they have, most seriously this past April, when he was seized at the Hong Kong airport and disappeared for 81 days. He was released after making a deal that (it is reported) included a promise to stay off Twitter. He is back on Twitter now, releasing frequent sarcastic remarks about corruption and stupidity in official China. (A recent example: "In the battle between creating evil laws and creating good laws, speaking out is golden and silence is death.") The secret to Ai's long-term survival must be that he, like Soviet writers in old times, actually has many fans in the party elite. Nationalist Chinese enjoy having an artist who can draw big crowds to museums in London, Paris and Tokyo, and they surely respect Ai's courage and cleverness.

Ai is back in the news today because Chinese authorities say he owes $2.4 million in back taxes, which he says is ridiculous, and are threatening to jail him (again) if he does not pay. It will do much to sum up my attitude toward Ai to say that I bet he is guilty on this charge. You can't glance at an art magazine or web site these days without seeing news about the opening of another Ai exhibit somewhere in the world. He is a gigantic star of the international art world, and such people earn millions a year. Can it really be that Ai, given his contempt for the Chinese government and his love of tweaking them in any way he can, is really paying all the taxes he owes on his foreign income? (The images above are from "Studies in Perspective," a series of photographs showing Ai holding up his middle finger to the top symbolic monuments of a dozen countries.)

I guess I don't really know about the tax issue, so I won't say any more about that. But Ai Weiwei is a strange character and the adoration heaped on him by western art fans has dubious origins. Ai is a real rebel who takes actual risks with his creations, and that gives him a cachet that phoney rebels in New York or Berlin have trouble matching. Who cares if Ai's art is any good? My personal thought is that he has churned out so much diverse stuff so fast that it is hard to get a handle on what is serious and what is not, or even how much he personally contributed. Ai is a notorious jokester whose production company is called Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., and he seems to laugh off questions about his standing as an artist. Is a work like his pile of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, which museum goers were invited to walk on, humorous or serious? One critic said they symbolized China's downtrodden masses, but that is just a guess; I can't find the quotation, but once when he was asked about this work Ai said he was just hoping that someone would mistake the seeds for real and break a tooth on one. (A pile of a few thousand of these seeds recently sold at auction for $600,000.) His fans say this is a necessary part of his political struggle, allowing him to disavow many of his rebellious gestures and statements, but surely it is also a major part of his character.

Here, via Wikipedia, is a good example of Ai's jokey artistic rebellion:

The caption(草泥马挡中央, "grass mud horse covering the middle") to Ai's self-portrait sounds almost the same in Chinese as 肏你妈党中央, "Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee".
Ok, that's funny, and it's a good dig at the Chinese authorities, but in what sense is it art?

Which brings me to the real question: Does "art" exist as a category anyway? Ai's biggest assets in his career are his battle with the Chinese authorities, his gift for getting attention, and his sense of humor. Do the images and objects Ai creates as part of his struggle matter at all, except as gestures of rebellion? By admiring Ai's works, are people doing anything other than expressing solidarity with his political struggle and admiration for his character? Is there such a thing as Ai Weiwei's art, separate from his life and politics?

Here is one of Ai's most famous works, three images from a short film titled "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn." Nothing like the smashing of a 2,000-year-old relic to get a little attention; and how does this differentiate Ai from a Chinese government that smashed millions of historical objects? Or is that the point? Beats me.

This is my favorite Ai work, Zodiac Animals, which has been displayed all over the world. I find it interesting that none of the descriptions of this work explain where these heads came from; did Ai sculpt them? Are they casts of traditional Chinese images? Three-dimensional renderings of drawings by Ai, traditional Chinese images, or drawings by someone else? Nobody seems to know, and it doesn't seem to matter. By displaying them together with his name on them, Ai has made this his work.

I am on Ai Weiwei's side in his battle with the Chinese government, which (I think) is being quite stupid by taking Ai so seriously. If they just ignored him, his relevance would fade. (He is much more famous since he was arrested than he ever was before.) But he is able to goad them in ways they can't resist responding to. It is important to remember, though, that he is going out of his way to goad them. I got no sense of oppression in China. So far as I could tell, most Chinese people rarely think about the government one way or the other, except in very local matters. Ai is seeking out a battle with the government, and I suspect he is doing so for reasons of vanity as much as anything else. Perhaps it is necessary that someone challenge the Chinese system before it will reform, since, as I said, most Chinese people don't seem interested. But rebels have complex motives, among which a desire to thrust themselves forward is often prominent. Ai wants to make waves, and he is.

I think the most positive way to see Ai Weiwei would be to imagine him as a Trickster, a mythic figure laughing and joking his way toward profound change. Perhaps there is much truth in this. But perhaps also he is a vain self-promoting climber who constantly mocks both the Chinese authorities who struggle to keep him down and the western art lovers who eat up his rebellious creations. It seems to me that this is ever the way with the most important people. Simple goodness never leads to greatness, and monstrous vanity is often part of the complex of qualities that does. I admire Ai Weiwei, and like some of his work. But I am suspicious of the way he has goaded the Chinese government into helping make him an international art star, and very dubious about the motives of westerners who hail him as a great artist.

No comments: