Every month I write a post about an artist that has stolen my heart with the work they’re doing. I’m starting off with the, world-famous, Chinese multidisciplinary artist, activist and open critic of the Chinese regime: Ai Weiwei. He has, unlike anyone else, given more depth to my perception of art. Weiwei is uncompromising towards his ideals, despite of the danger this is putting him into. Leaving me (a girl that still get’s scared of the dark) in awe of the seemingly fearless man that, other than me, really does have plenty to fear. He is under the constant surveillance of Chinese authorities, his studio has been destroyed, he’s been beaten by police and in 2011 he was arrested, detained and interrogated for 81 days straight at an unknown location. Through the years he’s watched fellow artists, intellectuals and critics of the Chinese regime being put behind bars. He’s the most interviewed man in China, but seems to be non-existent on the Chinese internet due to censorship by the authorities. His name gets filtered out and his studio was deleted from Google Maps. But he certainly does exist, and luckily his voice is heard throughout the world. I, along with many, am all ears.
WHY AI WEIWEI
As a kid I remember coming up with a tactical approach of fighting my nightmares. For my new technique I made use of all the scary figures I had already encountered and collected under my bed. These had all joined me on the ‘good side’ and were no longer a threat to me. Whenever a new creep came haunting me in the night, I would simply give him a choice: either join us or don’t and my team will come after you. The dinosaur would’ve, without a doubt, devoured him whole. No subject of my nightmare would dare to go against me, and the army under my bed grew bigger and bigger. I had defeated fear with fear. But not for very long. Inevitably the power of my imagination decreased and my imaginative army lost its power with it. It didn’t stand a chance against fears that took on bigger forms than movie characters. Some nights I still have trouble sleeping. Those nights I’ll feel overwhelmed by life. I’ve traded my creepy army for the tv, and distraction has become my coward’s weapon. The stupider the show I’m watching, the better (and there’s plenty of those nowadays). When my mind is blank again I’ll tamely drift off into sleep. So it’s not like I don’t have my concerns about this world we’re living in, but somehow they’re easy to discard as being ‘too big’ for me to ever really influence. Ai Weiwei proves this to be untrue. No issue seems too big for him. Or at least this doesn’t mean he’ll give up and watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
The first time I remember feeling overwhelmed by the depth of his artwork was when I saw a documentary about his Sunflower Seeds. A work that filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100 million handmade, painted porcelain sunflower seeds. A work that didn’t mean that much to me at first glance but after finding out more about it, overwhelmed me with it’s meaning. The seeds are a true monument to different aspects of China’s history.
They were all hand-made by labourers in the town of Jingdezhen, that traditionally produced porcelain for the emperors court. Weiwei’s project employed 1600 people, which brought business back to an area that had lost it. The sunflower seed provokes a lot of meaning within China’s historical context. For thirty years, under the reign of Mao Zedong, artists only purpose was to make propaganda images. The sunflower was en reoccurring symbol in these works. It’s the flower that turns his head towards the sun, as the Chinese people were expected to turn their heads towards Mao. The sunflower came to symbolize oppression, since it can’t choose where it turns it’s head to. During this same period, poverty forced a lot of people to survive off of eating sunflower seeds. The installation also seems to refer to contemporary China as a nation of mass production and reproduction. Seen from afar the seeds come across as a great grey mass, which could also reference the way we view China’s massive population. In his installation, Ai Weiwei literally let’s us walk all over the handwork the labourers produced.
The work totally blew me away. Looking back, it was Ai Weiwei that has opened my eyes to the conceptual depth art can have. Touched by all the layers of meaning I could find in his work, I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) just look an art piece’s surface anymore. It felt like a big door had just swung open, a new dimension was discovered; a (sunflower) seed planted. Just aesthetics were never going to be truly satisfying anymore.
When you just call Weiwei and artist, you’re not doing him justice. His whole persona has become somewhat mythical to me. A short, chubby, fearless fairytale hero fighting for what’s right, no matter what danger this gets him in. In an interview Weiwei firmly denies being fearless. He says he is very fearful, which is what makes him so driven to fight. This explanation only enforces more admiration on my part. Next time the night feels a little too dark to me, I’ll think of him instead of turning on the tv. Life can’t scare me this time, I have Ai Weiwei under my bed.
AN INTRODUCTION TO AI WEIWEI
Ai Weiwei is brought up in a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution in China, where his family literally has to live in a hole in the ground to survive. His father, renowned intellectual and writer Ai Qing, initially was part of the new communist regime. This all changed when he wrote a daring poem about a rose garden, that was seen as being anti-revolutionary. Declared an enemy of the state, he and his family were banned to exile in a camp in Beidauan, a remote part of China. Here Ai Weiwei’s father was assigned the heavy and humiliating task of cleaning the public toilets. Four years later the family is send to Shihezi, where they live until Mao’s death ends the Cultural Revolution. But this didn’t mean that freedom of speech had become a part of Chinese society and a few years later Weiwei moved to New York to escape from the political situation in his country. This is where he first experiences real freedom and where he starts photographing. In 1993 he returns to China when his father get’s ill. Here he keeps developing his art, which spreads across multiple mediums, further. Weiwei’s father tries to convince his son not to become an artist, but with no luck. Ai Weiwei, who has had a taste of freedom and has been influenced by artists like Warhol and Duchamp, is set in his believes.
A lot of his early work combines the traditional with the new. Reflecting a tension that was also very evident in China. One of his most famous works from that time is the performance where he drops a 2000 year old Han dynasty urn. A reference to the destruction of traditional Chinese objects under the reign of Mao.
In the early years Weiwei is a very active architect and consequently frequently works commissioned by the authorities (he is most famous for his ‘birds nest’ design of Beijing’s stadium for the Olympic Games). In 2008 however, he get’s known (and notorious) for a project of a whole different nature. It’s the year an earthquake hits Sichan, China. A disaster that causes a notable amount of school buildings to collapse, causing a lot of children to lose their lives. This horrid effect of the quake however, is kept quiet by Chinese authorities and the bodies are burned before they’re identified. Out of frustration and his penchant for transparency Weiwei, using the blog he started in 2005, starts a project to collect the names of the child victims of the earthquake. A year later he publishes a list of over 5000 names. He also makes a video where all the names are read out loud by Chinese citizens. This project meant his first big confrontation with the regime and that same year his blog is taken offline. Apart from the list Weiwei also makes an impressive installation of kid’s backpacks covering the walls of the ‘Haus der Kunst’ in Munich. Together they quote a sentence that one of the mums of the victims commemorated her daughter with saying: “She lived happily in this world for seven years.” Just before the artist leaves for Germany to attend the opening of his Munich exhibit, police officers barge into his hotel room. In the discussion that follows Ai Weiwei is beaten by one of the officers. He proceeded traveling to Munich, but with a massive headache. Once he arrived he was taken into the hospital where they detected internal bleeding and operated on him immediately. The earthquake has been a reoccurring subject of Weiwei’s artwork.
SURVEILANCE, A DISAPPEARANCE AND SELF-SURVEILANCE
Over the years Ai Weiwei has put himself on the radar of Chinese authorities, which resulted in him being put under constant surveillance. There’s cameras all around his studio and police cars are frequently stationed around these same streets. Whenever he leaves his studio, undercover policemen follow him everywhere. But it seems like Ai Weiwei can’t be silenced, and he keeps on making provocative work. In 2011, it suddenly goes quiet. On his way to Hong Kong the artist is arrested at the airport and, without a charge, detained at an unknown location for 81 days. He is not allowed to contact anyone, not even a lawyer. The authorities later try to justify his imprisonment with a tax evasion charge, but throughout the whole world it’s seen as a attempt at censorship. His fame as an artist and critic of the Chinese regime might’ve gotten him into the situation but it seems to have also been his way out. From all over the world Weiwei’s release was demanded. When he finally gets released, he’s placed under house arrest and his passport is seized. The surveillance on him increases.
“Outside my house are some 15 to 20 cameras, the police do surveillance all the time and quite recently listening devices were found in three of my rooms, right next to my working table. (…) And this is no surprise you know, because China is a state in which a profound ethical, moral or philosophical discussion is not possible So anything can happen. But eventually it’s only an advantage within the game played by themselves. My tactics are openness and transparency. I told them: “I don’t have any secrets, you have a secret.””
– Ai Weiwei in Marcel Feil’s interview for Foam magazine: “Freedom of expression under surveillance”
As a response to the constant spying Weiwei decides to help the government track his every move with what he calls “self-surveillance”. He places cameras in different parts of his house/studio and starts a livestream on weiweicam.com. After the website has been online for 46 hours, and seen by 5.2 million people, authorities demanded it was shut down. The constant surveillance is a frequent theme in his work. He also made a series of sculptures showing the conditions in which he was detained for three months. This series, titled S.A.R.C.R.E.D., is shown to the world during the 2013 Venice Biennale.
A CONSTANT STREAM
Ai Weiwei’s power lies in his visibility. Although he has now moved to Berlin, Chinese authorities are still watching him, but so are we. His public place in the world largely seems to ensure his safety and his self-surveillance continues online. He’s on Twitter and Instagram every day which makes it possible for us all to know where he is and what he’s working on. If you’ve had him on Instagram this past year, you know he’s been spending a lot of his time on the island of Lesbos as well as visiting refugee camps all over Europe. Photographs of his encounters there filled his Instagram feed. His experiences there caused him to make multiple artworks as a commentary on the refugee crisis.
Feeling the butterflies and want to find out more about Ai Weiwei? Here’s some suggestions:
- The documentary “Never Sorry” (on Netflix or get it here)
- BBC: “Ai Weiwei: Without fear or favor”
- This video on the Sunflower Seeds project
- Ai Weiwei doing Gangam Style (No seriously)
- FOAM magazine 43: Freedom of Expression under Surveillance
- The Artsy page on Ai Weiwei where you can find his bio, over 300 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Weiwei exhibition listings.
- This book on Ai Weiwei’s artwork
- This book with writings from his blogs
SOME OF MY FAVOURITE QUOTES