WHEN CHINESE AUTHORITIES placed controversial artist Ai Weiwei under 24/7 police surveillance in 2011, they unwittingly transformed him from an artist relatively unknown to the general public into a reality star. In 2012, he added his own cameras inside his residence-cum-studio in Beijing and broadcast his life to the internet, or at least what he wanted his international fans to see of it. The Chinese government didn’t agree with the entertainment value and promptly took the cameras down.
The intervention came too late. By then, Ai had become a performance artist. In an interview with Time Out Beijing for his first solo exhibition in China’s capital city, he said, “I always say my life is a show. So we artists have to wrap it together [the work and its meaning], otherwise my work has no meaning. It's just a bunch of materials that the wind will blow away — Beijing has a strong wind.” It is that urge to make his life significant — indeed, scream with meaning — that has driven Ai’s work in recent years.
But unlike self-identified performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Daphne Guinness, Ai’s personhood has not been elided into a concept. His naïveté and uncompromising simplicity strongly suggest that he is not really even artful. The result is that there is a tendency for audiences to overthink his work, to give him the critical pedigree that an artist of his fame, stature, and responsibility should have and that he seems to crave.
Since China took away his passport in 2011, Ai has become one of the country’s most iconic dissidents among Western audiences. The widely acclaimed documentary Never Sorry took us inside Ai’s cause and creative space. Exhibitions in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Blenheim Palace, and Berlin celebrated Ai’s courage and activism, as expressed through his large-scale mixed media installations and his signature cascades of ready-mades. These shows created the impression that Ai was the boldest Chinese voice in favor of democracy, artistic freedom, environmentalism, and all the other Enlightenment goods that the post-Communist nation could use more of.
At Large, Ai’s colonization of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, featured a paper dragon sporting famous democracy slogans such as, “Privacy is a function of liberty” (Edward Snowden) and, “Our march to freedom is irreversible” (Nelson Mandela) alongside orphaned, nondescript words from the activist’s vocabulary like, “damaging,” “disobeying,” and “breaking”. He carpeted a room with Lego portraits of jailed freedom fighters, their faces pixelated, as they would be in a 70s-era computer. The viewer would go from row to row, gazing down at each as though touring a graveyard. He filled the island prison’s jail cells with music and speeches from famous civil rights martyrs. (To Ai’s credit, most of the show was a tribute to those who have suffered far more than he has for their causes.)
Eloquence can require oversimplification, but Ai’s curation of these dissident sound bites bordered on facile. There is not the slightest acknowledgement that the struggle for human rights is far more complex, and entails far greater subtlety and thoughtfulness about the political situation, than these universalisms. Why does this man shape so much of what the West thinks about China? Because he gives us what we want: digestible, consistent platitudes about the lack of freedom in authoritarian regimes. For a moment, at the Alcatraz exhibit, sitting in that cell block with Liao Yiwu’s baleful account of the Tiananmen Square massacre playing, I wanted to slam the cell door shut and wallow in my revolutionary fervor, too.
If Ai’s art lacks sophistication, it is because he deals in reflexive irreverence for authority. At his Blenheim Palace exhibition, he covered rooms in river crabs (a Chinese pun for censorship) and Han Dynasty vases painted in metallic colors. It was meant to be both a take on modern China and a flip of the bird to the stately aristocratic home. In other words, it was a gleeful vandalizing made valid by the modern commentary about an exotic place. Apparently it worked: The Guardian’s critic breathlessly exclaimed, “This place is full of China.”
Put uncharitably, Ai has faithfully toed the line of Western artistic orthodoxy. As Eric Abrahamsen noted in an op-ed about Chinese censorship for The New York Times last month, “romantic images of Soviet-style repression — hostile state censors redacting novels with a red pen, writers forced to choose between humiliating submission and courageous defiance — do not apply in China today.” Instead, Abrahamsen writes, a general culture of cliquishness in artistic circles, in which writers are judged by which backs they have scratched, has accounted for more self-censorship than actual censorship. The Chinese saying, “Look at the writer, not the writing,” epitomizes this culture of going along and getting along. The art, he suggests, matters far less than the persona and views of the artist himself. And in a twist on this social dynamic, Ai has been treated well by his Western audiences more for who he is than for his art.
But even he is starting to recoil from the caricature. In an interview with Adrian Locke, the man behind Ai’s upcoming exhibit at London’s Royal Academy of Art in September, I asked if Ai still had a robust identity as an artist. Locke said:
It’s an interesting question, isn’t it, because he’s become more things now than just an artist. Many people recognize the name but struggle to identify a work of his. We want to focus on him as an artist, but of course doing that doesn’t discount the fact that you want to include his challenge to the authorities, which is a significant amount of what he’s doing.
At some point, Ai returned to first principles. He’s not alone among famous dissidents. At the time At Large opened at Alcatraz Island, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong weighed heavily on the minds of visitors. Joshua Wang, the 17 year old who led the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, served as the lightning rod for democracy hopes throughout the former colony. After going on hunger strike and protesting in the streets as long as possible, he saw the unmoving official resistance and went home. Recall, also, the feeling of shock and betrayal in the democratic world when Aung San Suu Kyi shook Xi Jinping’s hand earlier in June. Did we think she was first a democracy internationalist and second a Burmese?
The West expects too little of famous overseas activists. We expect them to be two-dimensional embodiments of our most vehement ideals. What happens when they look inward?
Ai recently gave his answer in his first solo exhibition in Beijing, and it was magnificent. “I wanted to make a statement that I am doing an exhibition in China,” he told The New York Times. For his latest conquest of space, Ai reconstructed a Ming Dynasty temple from Jiangxi province in the Tang Contemporary Art Center and Galleria Continua in 798. “The fact that the exhibition has no meaning or implications; it simply happens. After it happens, I cannot say I’ve never done an exhibition in China.” Things had come full circle: after returning to China in the early 1990s following a flourishing artistic career in Brooklyn, he was finally ready to put down his suitcase and table his quest to assert the meaning of his own life.
Instead, he turned the cameras on the people visiting the exhibition. Visitors are able to observe each other interacting with the building and its amenities. Since the building had to be split into two galleries, Ai installed surveillance cameras in each so that visitors could keep tabs on their counterparts in the other half.
Over the last four years, Ai has developed a keen sense of space from being unable to see, in person, any of his exhibition venues. “He’s so quick to be able to understand which of his works work,” said Locke, appreciatively. Unlike his Alcatraz exhibition or any others outside China, he oversaw the building of the Beijing exhibit personally. It demonstrates even more profoundly his keen sense of how people will relate to a large-scale work of art based on how it, in turn, relates to the space it inhabits.
It would be easy to conclude that Ai wants to see how contemporary Chinese people interact with an ancient environment to highlight how much modernity has changed China. It seems to be a common theme throughout his work, after all: the iconic Coca-Cola-emblazoned Han Dynasty vases, the sculptures of Chinese zodiac animals cast in nouveau riche gold. But Ai’s reconstituted ancient building suggests we’ve either had it wrong all along, or that he’s shifted to a slightly different perspective.
Explaining the significance of this temple, Ai described it to Time Out Beijing as “a microcosm of the society in China […] all of the ritual and understanding of society, all the politics, and social discussions [...] it functioned as a very important unit in the sense of community.” In other words, Ai wants to replicate the ancient experience of community-building in a contemporary setting. He believes that classical China has something to contribute to the country’s modern social experiment.
Ai’s turn inward is not isolated to his Beijing exhibition. The galleries of the Royal Academy will focus on the 20 years of his career in China. As Locke explains, “It focuses on Ai Weiwei working in China as a Chinese artist and responding to a number of issues that China raises, including human rights and freedom of speech.” Through his choice of materials, including heavy use of jade and porcelain, though, Ai will also include many references to Imperial China and classical Chinese art.
After so many years of building notoriety in the West, Ai developed a hankering to cater to his Chinese audience — and, in the process, to reassert his artistry. “He wants to be seen as a very serious artist in China as much as anywhere else,” said Locke. “He’s consciously producing those [traditional] materials, not only to signify his connection to China, but also to demonstrate the great skill and artistry of its people.”
For a long time, Ai was in exile at home. The general public didn’t know his name. Most fellow creators in Beijing cared little for his political stances, even less so for his art. Indeed, they view people of Ai’s ilk with a mixture of embarrassment for the trouble he causes and resentment at the wealth and international fame that comes from having Western fans. Partly to avoid isolation like Ai’s, Xu Bing and China’s younger generation of artists have left controversy behind in search of an edgy, yet apolitical, Chinese aesthetic. (Up-and-coming artists are eager to leave the China part behind as well, for that matter.) Ai recognizes that this campaign for acceptance is not the right response, either.
Fortunately for Ai, the classical has recently trended upward in China. Confucius has enjoyed a revival among official circles. The Chinese Communist Party has also resurrected the reputations of other ancient philosophers, all of whom were cast aside during the Communist Revolution as symbols of a backward China. The look backward is motivated by many of the same reasons Ai gives for his exhibition: to find Chineseness and to seek reassurance that the old world, unsullied by the corruption, venality, and soulless commercialism of modern China, still has a place in life. In that way, Ai Weiwei actually shares much in common with his foes: they are both motivated by a desire to rescue a contemporary project gone awry.
For his humorous embrace of common objects, Ai is often compared to Marcel Duchamp. His Blenheim exhibition featured Qing Dynasty wooden stools. Alcatraz’s bathrooms were filled with porcelain flowers. Beijing got a sea of antique teapot spouts. However, Ai and Duchamp actually have completely different sensibilities. Duchamp, no matter how irreverent and critical of the times, ultimately celebrated the industrial and modern. Ai rues it. Let’s hope that he continues to go in search of the new old Ai.
Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in the Silicon Valley.