Ai Weiwei: Where we are, he is too. Where he is, we are with him (2011)

As I write, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been in detention for 51 days and 6 hours. I know this so precisely because someone who goes by the handle loveaiww has placed a counter on the web. On the door of my apartment is a poster with a silhouette of Ai, made from a photograph taken during a period when he was interested in getting (and giving) weird haircuts. His round head is surmounted by two long tufts of hair, like horns. It looks wild, comic. ‘Weiwei works here’, says the text.

We are all Ai Weiwei, is the message. Where we are, he is too. And wherever he is, we are with him.

Ai disappeared on April 3rd, as he was about to board a plane at Beijing International airport. Until May 16th , when his wife secured a ten minute visit, there was no official word of his whereabouts. Three days after he vanished, Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, put up a story saying he was to be charged with ‘economic crimes’. It was only online for a few minutes, before being taken down. Around the world supporters mounted protests outside Chinese embassies and consulates. In New York a couple of hundred of us were corralled at the side of the busy West Side Highway, the police having thoughtfully positioned us almost out of site of the Consulate and forbidden the organizers to use a megaphone. On 20th May the Beijing police finally confirmed that a company owned by Ai was being investigated for tax evasion. As of today (21st May) there is still no word of when he will be charged, let alone released.

As a global art star, co-architect of the Beijing Olympic stadium and outspoken dissident, Ai has become internationally famous. In the UK his Sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern won him an enthusiastic British audience. Zodiac Heads, a group of giant bronzes recreating pieces looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by British troops during the Second Opium war, is currently on show at Somerset House. There is no comparable figure in Europe or America. Imagine if one of the faded British celebrities of the nineties Sensation generation, or the New York art-market titans who paint in three-thousand-dollar suits were using their money and fame to confront corruption and become a voice for the powerless. The publication of Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 has, for the first time, given non Chinese speakers access to writings which circulated among millions of people until the authorities took the blog offline two years ago. Ai’s comments on everything from street furniture to capital punishment have become an integral part of his identity as an artist. “All people have a responsibility to speak their opinon on things,” he wrote in 2006, “to state the simple principles of their lives.” Ai exercises this responsibility in a muscular way, berating his fellow citizens in the strongest possible terms. “The People, the so-called People, are really simple-minded loafers … who have abandoned their rights and responsibilities, who walk like ghosts on the ever-widening streets, and whose true emotions, dreams and homes are long lost.” China is “a land with no truth, no justice and no soul”. His criticisms often have a bitter humor. “If national honor did exist, it would merely be something that the autocrats busied themselves with ruining.”

Ai’s detention is, among other things, a watershed moment for the international art world, the equivalent of the moral tests so badly flunked by technology companies like Cisco and Yahoo when faced with the dizzying financial vistas of the Chinese market. Notoriously fond of adopting radical postures, and notoriously shy of turning down money, players in the business of contemporary art – gallerists, collectors, curators, auctioneers and fellow artists – must now decide what risks (if any) they are prepared to take in defense of one of their own. In the US, the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is about to host a ‘Summer of China’ in collaboration with the Palace Museum in Beijing, has become a focus for debate about what role museums can or should play in the debate about artistic censorship and human rights. Stung by online criticism of its decision to participate in the Hong Kong International Art Fair, Ai’s London dealer, The Lisson Gallery, recently announced that, while it ‘deplored’ the artist’s detention and was ‘commiteed to the campaign to secure his release … it would still be participating in the Hong Kong International Art Fair on 26th May. to withdraw from ART HK and not show work by the artist would make us complicit in the authorities’ attempt to silence him and his supporters.’ His German dealer, Neugerriemscheider, have placed a banner on the outside of their Berlin building, asking ‘Where is Ai Weiwei?’ and distributed badges designed by Ai’s friend, the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. They will also be at Art HK, where they intend to ‘make Tiravanija’s statement visible’. The website of Ai’s Swiss dealer, Galerie Urs Meile, which has a space in Beijing, offers images of his work but mentions nothing about his detention. Galerie Urs Meile, who did not respond to a request for comment, will also exhibit in Hong Kong. Is ‘being present’, as the Lisson put it, just code for ‘business as usual’? Or do the galleries intend to use that presence (and their networks of wealthy and influential Chinese collectors) to further Ai’s cause?

Ai’s confrontation with the Chinese authorities has been a long time coming. One could say, without being melodramatic, that he was born into it. He is the son of the admired poet Ai Qing, a communist who had been with Mao in Yan’an in the years before the 1949 revolution, but fell foul of the party during the Anti-Rightist movement of the late nineteen-fifties and was declared an ‘enemy of the people’. In 1957, shortly after Weiwei’s birth, Ai Qing was sent for ‘reeducation through labour’, first to a forest in Heilongjiang (Manchuria), then to the far western highlands of Xinjiang, where and the family lived for a time in a pit dug out of the earth, and Weiwei would go to watch his father, aged almost sixty, cleaning the public toilets for a village of two hundred people.

Xinjiang, where winter temperatures can drop as low as -20⁰C, was Weiwei’s world until the age of nineteen. In 1976, as the terror of the Cultural Revolution abated, Ai Qing was rehabilitated and the family moved back to Beijing. Weiwei began to draw, tutored informally by friends of his father. He was also given three art books, an incredible rarity in China at that time. Two – one on Impressionism and a monograph about Van Gogh, he kept. The third, on Jasper Johns, went in the trash. “I just couldn’t figure out whether it was art,” he later explained.

In 1978 he enrolled at the Beijing film academy and was soon part of a milieu of artists and radicals, who took advantage of the thaw in Communist party policy to voice their desire for change. In December of that year, a long brick wall in Beijing’s Xidan street became the focus for dissent. Ai was one of a a small group (he estimates it at less than a hundred) of activists who pasted posters and broadsides on the so-called ‘Democracy Wall’. The movement was suppressed after a young electrician called Wei Jingsheng put up a poster calling for a ‘fifth modernization’. It was Party policy to push for technological progress in four areas – industry, agriculture, technology and national defense. Wei wrote that “we want to be masters of our own destiny. We need no Gods or Emperors. We do not believe in the existence of any savior. We want to be masters of the world and not instruments used by autocrats to carry out their wild ambitions. We want a modern lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernization. Without this fifth modernization all others are merely another promise.” Wei was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp.

Ai was profoundly affected by the fate of Wei Jingsheng and the other leaders of the Democracy Wall movement. As soon as he could, he left China for the USA, winding up in New York, where he lived on the Lower East Side and moved in the fringes of the vibrant downtown scene. For a time he studied at Parsons school of Design, but his teacher, the artist Sean Scully, pronounced that his technically adept drawing had ‘no heart’, and Ai, ‘ashamed’, soon dropped out. He supported himself with a variety of odd jobs, including an extremely successful stint as a blackjack player, during which he headed up to Atlantic City two or three times a week for marathon card sessions.

Though Ai was an obsessive gallery-goer (“I must have seen every exhibition in the nineteen-eighties”, he claims) he found little to connect with in the then-fashionable Neo-Expressionist painting of Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His two great New York discoveries were Dada and Andy Warhol. The readymades of Marcel Duchamp, and the notion that functional objects could be subverted to make them ‘useless’ and strange, were fascinating to a young man who had only been exposed to extremely traditional forms of art. Of Warhol he wrote that he ‘was a self-created product, and the transmission of that product was a characteristic of his identity, including all of his activities and his life itself.” The possibility that art could be present in all the actions and gestures of the artist was to be the foundation of his future practice. By about 1986 he had given up painting and was making objects out of coat-hangers, shoes, raincoats and other everyday items. On his return to China in 1993, Ai brought with him a commitment to conceptualism, and a lofty notion of Modernism, which he saw as a kind of total interrogation of the human condition:

“Modernism has no need for various masks or titles; it is the primal creation of the enlightened, it is the ultimate consideration of the meaning of existence and the plight of reality, it is keeping tabs on society and power, it does not compromise, it does not cooperate. Enlightenment is attained through a process of self-recognition, attained through a teeming thirst for and pursuit of an inner world, attained through interminable doubts and puzzlement.”

The idea that the ‘pursuit of an inner world’ is a primary artistic activity may seem banal to anyone who grew up with conventional Western Romantic notions of art, but Ai has made it the foundation of his challenge to the Chinese state, which he accuses of producing ‘a society without citizens’. ‘A person with no true rights cannot have a complete sense of morality or humanity’, he wrote in 2008. ‘Freedom of expression is one of life’s basic rights… Modernity cannot exist without freedom of speech.’ Ai’s connection of artistic Modernism to human rights and a kind of relentless questioning of the political, social and psychological status quo is arguably one of the most important developments in Chinese art since its opening up to the West at the end of the Cutural Revolution.

In the nineties, Ai published a series of influential underground books, known as the ‘Red Flag books’, which introduced other Chinese artists to his ideas and tried to prod them into thinking more critically about their art-making. He also produced thousands of photographs, many of them witty and provocative, such as the now-famous image of his wife-to-be, Lu Qing, winsomely lifting her skirt in Tiananmen Square, or the series drily titled Studies Of Perspective, in which the photographer gives the finger to the White House, the Eiffel Tower and other national cultural monuments. In 2000 he organized a counter-exhibition to the Shanghai bienniale, with the blunt English title ‘Fuck Off’, a phrase deadpanned into Chinese as ‘Uncooperative Approach’. Seen by many international curators and critics, it turned Ai into a fully fledged art-star.

One of Ai’s productive borrowings from Warhol was the idea of the factory. Very quickly, he was running an atelier with a huge number of technically-skilled assistants, producing large-scale sculptural pieces. Like other Chinese artists, who have access to cheap labor and unusual materials, this positioned him perfectly to perform in the environment of international biennials, the artworld equivalent of the blockbuster summer action flick, where grandeur and scale of statement are everything. After he designed a house for himself in 1999, a string of architectural commissions ensued, as developers in the booming Chinese regions scrambled to add some cultural gloss to their portfolios. His architectural style is simple and unadorned. As he wrote, ‘I don’t aspire to be surrounded by precision, and my own life experiences have little to do with precision, but I do aspire to rationality and reason in art.”

One side effect of China’s breakneck development has been the wanton demolition of old neighborhoods. In Beijing, huge swathes of the city’s old hutongs, or lanes, have been erased to make way for a new urban landscape of high-rise condo buildings and malls. Ai’s art is intimately bound up with this, in complex and sometimes troubling ways. Many of his large sculptures use wood and furniture from Ming and Qing dynasty structures (often temples) which have been demolished by developers. Ai salvages and makes these once ‘useful’ or functional things into oddities. A beam pierces a table. Stools cluster together like huddled people. A map of China is drilled through a lintel like words in a stick of rock. In a 2007 piece called Template, decorative doors were fixed together to make a monumental structure with a temple-shaped cut-out at its centre.

Ai is clearly aware of what is being lost through the thoughtless destruction of China’s heritage. ‘The extermination of a nation’s collective memory and its ability for self-reflection is like a living organism’s rejection of its own immune system.The main difference is that this nation won’t die, it will only lose its sense of reason.’ However he seems to feel a tension between the wish to acknowledge history, and a contrary wish to overcome it. In 2008 he wrote that ‘creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential’. Much of his work involves rejection of the most violent kind. In 1995 he had himself photographed dropping a Han dynasty (206 BC – 202 AD) urn onto a hard tiled floor. This shocking act has analogues in Western contemporary art. Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, and the Chapman brothers made cartoonish alterations to a set of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, titling the result, ‘Insult to Injury’. The art market fetishises objects in the name of preserving their value as commodities, and this is something artists have frequently felt the need to kick against, but in the Chinese context, Ai’s act has a second set of meanings. China is a place that has sometimes staggered under the weight of history and has more than once attempted to erase it. The ‘First Emperor’, Qin Shihuangdi, is said to have decreed the burning of the entire corpus of historical knowledge, and murdered four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars by burying them alive. During the Cultural Revolution, museums, archives and temples were ransacked. Ai helped his own father destroy his library. “We had to burn all his books because he could have got into trouble. We burned all those beautiful hardcover books he collected, and catalogues - beautiful museum catalogues. He only had one book left, which was a big French encyclopaedia.”

Some of Ai’s destructive gestures are hard to stomach. In Colored Vases (2006), he started with a group of fifty neolithic vases, dating from between three and five thousand years BC . They are beautiful, delicately painted in red, black and ochre, a precious link to prehistory. Ai drenched them in lurid industrial paint, turning them into objects that seem crass and banal. He has painted other vases with corporate logos, and ground rare porcelain into powder. Yet he railed against the Beijing city authorities for painting the streetscape of the hutongs a uniform grey in preparation for the Olympics.

A clue to this apparent contradiction may be found in Ai’s valorisation of people over objects. Though he speaks of human rights, and much of his thinking is evidently influenced by Western liberalism, many of his statements echo the classical Marxist formulation of alienation: “The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself.” His idea of Modernism as a rediscovery of the inner life of people necessarily involves having an antagonistic relationship to the world of things. In 2006, internet portal helped him start his famous blog and in 2007 he used it to gather participants for Fairytale, a profoundly humanist project in which he took 1001 Chinese to Germany for the Documenta exhibition. The participants, from all walks of life, were not themselves ‘exhibited’. They did not become things. The experience was theirs. Ai’s intention was to offer them the ‘fairytale’ scenario of foreign travel, alongside a second fairytale for the citizens of Kassel, the experience of seeing and meeting Chinese people in their small town.

In 2008 he collaborated with Herzog and de Meuron on the ‘birds nest’ Olympic stadium, but rapidly became disgusted with the ‘pretend smile’ he felt China was putting on for the games, and announced he would not attend. He publicly excoriated the film director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers) and the artist Cai Guo Qiang (the man whose firework dragon failed to ignite on the Thames at the Millennium) for creating the opening ceremony, which he termed ‘a visual crap pile of phony affection and hypocritical unctuousness … an encyclopedia of spiritual subjugation’.

On May 12th 2008 came the turning point, when this provocateur and prankster became a genuine threat to the Chinese state. An earthquake of magnitude 8.0 hit Sichuan province, its epicentre fifty miles northwest of the capital Chengdu. Official figures later confirmed 69,000 dead and 374,000 injured, with another 18000 unaccounted for. As the scale of the devastation became clear, Ai made a series of blog posts, at first grief-stricken and then increasingly angry as it became apparent that school buildings throughout the region had been disproportionately affected by the earthquake. Up to 7000 schools collapsed, often in places where surrounding buildings remained standing. An unknown number of pupils were inside. The so-called ‘tofu dregs’ construction of these schools appeared to be the result of official corruption and siphoning off of funds. Because of China’s one-child policy, many families had lost their only son or daughter.

It soon became clear that the authorities were attempting to hush up the deaths of children in the ‘tofu dregs’ schools. Parents were harrassed. No official list of the dead was published. Incensed, Ai financed a so-called ‘citizen investigation’ to pressure the provincial government to take responsibility for the deaths and release the list of names. Volunteers met with bereaved families and collected footage for a documentary that Ai distributed freely throughout China. After the citizen investigation, Ai’s phone was tapped, surveillance cameras were mounted conspicuously outside his house, and the blog was closed. Ai turned to twitter, and began to incorporate imagery of the earthquake into his monumental international commissions. At Munich’s Haus der Kunst, he exhibited thousands of children’s backpacks, covering the museum’s façade, spelling out a quote from the mother of one of the victims: ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years’.

In August 2009 Ai went to Sichuan with his usual entourage of assistants and videographers, to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, another activist for the rights of earthquake victims. He was woken at 3am in his Chengdu hotel room by police pounding on his door. As they tried to gain entry, Ai was struck on the head. It was only when he left the country for the Haus der Kunst show the following month that his subsequent headaches were diagnosed as a cerebral haemorrhage, and he underwent surgery. In January this year Shanghai authorities demolished his new studio, claiming it had been built illegally. As the pitch of his confrontation with the authorities has increased, some observers began to fear for Ai’s life. Others believed his international fame made him untouchable. After the so-called ‘Jasmine revolutions’ swept the Arab world at the beginning of the year, the Chinese authorities mounted a massive campaign of detentions and ramped up censorship. As June 4th (the anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre) approaches, it seems to have been decided to remove Ai from circulation.

The news that Ai is to be prosecuted for fraud seems to be a tactic to discredit him within China, where many people see him as unpatriotic, his human rights activism no more than ‘shameless’ publicity-seeking. Whether it is possible for the international artworld (or even international governments) to influence the Chinese authorities to bring about his release is an open question. Simplistic calls for protests and boycotts have to confront the ineffectiveness of such tactics in previous situations of this kind. Some China-watchers feel that international support for prisoners of conscience like the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo and journalist Shi Tao have made their freedom less, not more, likely. Yet at the same time there is something distasteful about the spectacle of chic art-folk performing their outrage in the safety of London or New York or Berlin, while raking in the cash in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The art market is essentially no more than a high-end service industry catering to the global elite, and as such, it’s perhaps asking too much for it to have a moral conscience. Yet art makes high claims for itself, and perhaps players in the twenty-first century artworld need to pay more than lip service to the ideals of Ai Weiwei. On August 23rd 2009, he tweeted this:

If there is one person who is still not free, then I am not; If there is one person who still suffers from insult and humiliation, then I do. Do you understand yet?

If he is not free then we are not. If he suffers from insult and humiliation, then we all do. Wherever he is, we are with him. Do we understand yet?

  • Hari Kunzru may 21st 2011