A great deal has been written about Ai Weiwei – at one point it was as if the whole western world was on first-name terms with this multi-artist, this activist, this indomitable man, who with his art and his pen is so precise and direct that he hits the nail right on the head every time.
We know Ai Weiwei’s life story, and the conditions in which he lives. Despite this Ai Weiwei persists in his struggle against the corruption and lack of freedom of expression that takes place in China with incredible human energy and dignity.
In many places in the world, fear is used as a means of starting wars, and of suppressing basic human rights. Ai Weiwei simply does not let fear in. Ai Weiwei is China’s Nelson Mandela. We can learn from this. Our open society, in which trust in one another is fundamental, is under pressure because fear has us in its grip. It isn’t terror that is our greatest enemy, even though we have now been waging war on it for 14 years – no, it is our own fear, which is making us our own worst enemies. If we continue down the path of fear we will end up with new walls that separate us from one another.
Politics and art often make a bad cocktail. But with Ai Weiwei as bartender his lambasting of the Chinese political system is transformed with incredible artistic panache into sublime works of art, which at the same time shift the boundaries of our traditional perception of art.
The work Straight is one of Ai Weiwei’s most impressive productions. Ai Weiwei has transformed reinforcement steel that covers up the terrible tragedy from Sichuan into a visually very powerful installation; the work is at once as political as a Beuys, is a twisted ready-made with references to Duchamp, has a masculine brutality as in Richard Serra, is a three-dimensional figurative landscape that recalls a landscape by Kiefer. Straight is a masterpiece. Straight is Ai Weiwei’s Guernica.
The other major work in the exhibition, Sunflower Seeds, tells an equally tragic story of an abortive policy and a leadership that was to transform the Chinese empire into a People’s Republic; one of its bearing ideas was that everyone was equal, but instead the form of government was typified by repression, fear and coercion. In the great Chinese propaganda apparatus Mao Zedong was depicted as the sun, while the people were the sunflowers that turned towards the light and the leader.
In this work Ai Weiwei presents the narrative of the Great Leader and the People, but also the story of the failed agricultural policy that resulted in a famine – an unprecedented disaster with millions of dead.
I have been looking forward to this exhibition for a very long time. To having the opportunity to show two of Ai Weiwei’s major works at the same time. Straight takes its point of departure in modern China, a country that has been transformed in the course of a decade, but which is still in the grip of a power apparatus where corruption is a natural element of the leadership. Seeds draws lines back to the policies and ideology that were characteristic of China after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Although the historical starting points for these two works are essentially different, the works complement each other visually, physically and mentally.
I am pleased that we have earlier had the opportunity to show Ai Weiwei’s works in two exhibitions in Beijing in 2009 and in 2011, and here in Copenhagen in 2010. I look forward to the day when Ai Weiwei has an exhibition at a public institution in China.
Ai Weiwei is aware of the risk that he could be hidden away. Perhaps as a consequence of this, he has sent his own son to Berlin, where he lives with his mother. I know that at the moment Ai Weiwei is spending time reading and understanding his own father, the poet Ai Qing, and he has said that it is important for him to write to his son, so that when he grows up he can understand why Ai Weiwei does as he does.
Thanks to Ai Weiwei for the chance to show this fine exhibition here in Copenhagen. This makes us very happy.
Why this fear of art?
- “My condition has been constantly interrupted or disturbed by political pressure. My practice of art has been under surveillance and my contacts, phone numbers or e-mails have all been under secret police watch. Currently I do not have the right to travel, I do not have my passport, and I still do not have a chance to have any shows in Beijing. My name cannot appear on social media or Chinese Internet, also nobody in the papers or magazines can discuss my art or even criticise me. So I’m a person that does not exist in this society.”1
This was how Ai Weiwei began his paper as the keynote speaker at an international conference on artistic freedom of expression in New York in February 2015. His contribution was shown on video.
As the exhibition title Ruptures indicates, Ai Weiwei’s life and artistic work in the course of the last few years have, to a great extent, been typified by ruptures and upheavals. In recent years, his level of activity has been hectic and his career has been meteoric since he had his breakthrough in the international art world less than ten years ago. Today he is world-famous far beyond the world of art for his explicit critique of the lack of openness in the Chinese regime – not least after he was detained in 2011 by the authorities for 81 days, accused of tax fraud and with a subsequent one-year house arrest.
It was his level of activism, compiling and publishing the names of the thousands of dead schoolchildren after the major earthquake in Sichuan, which seriously turned the authorities’ spotlight on Ai Weiwei, and led to the surveillance and censorship of his work. Ai Weiwei wanted to get the authorities to admit corruption and shoddy construction, and to have the true casualty figures published. He used both the social media in China and his artistic platform in the West to speak out against the system.
The authorities arrested Ai Weiwei immediately after he had received fantastic international reviews for his large, site-specific installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010, Sunflower Seeds. It consisted of 100 million hand-made, and hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. The exhibition cemented Ai Weiwei’s position as one of the world’s most significant artists, while Ai Weiwei used the western media to criticise the Chinese regime’s lack of transparency. In autumn 2011, the respected art magazine, ArtReview named him the world’s most powerful artist, stating: Ai Weiwei’s number one ranking is the direct result of his efforts to expand the territory and audience for contemporary art practice by breaking down the barriers between art and life.2
Ai Weiwei has, in fact, often been described as a “Renaissance Man”, because his practice is so all-embracing and encompasses specific physical artworks, exhibition curating, book publications, blogs, tweets, photography, film, music videos, design and architecture. He has been involved in more than fifty architectural projects in China, including the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Olympics in Beijing (2008), which he designed in collaboration with the Swiss architect firm, Herzog & de Meuron.
In more recent years, though, he has reduced his involvement with architecture, and has intensified his more directly political and social activities. One example of this is his latest exhibition on the prison island of Alcatraz, where the main work comprised 176 portraits of political prisoners built with LEGO bricks.
For Ai Weiwei, art is a social practice, and he uses his art and activism as interventions in an attempt to create social change in China. All of his projects are about China: about lack of freedom of expression; about corruption, surveillance and censorship; about the destruction of culture and historical objects; about people deprived of their freedom to speak out openly against the system; and about the constant rewriting and suppression of stories from everyday life under the present authoritarian regime.
Since his release in 2011 the authorities have continued to restrict his freedom and he is still under their surveillance. For the fourth year running he does not have his passport. While we celebrate his artistic practice in the West, his name has been erased from the Internet in China, and he has had no exhibitions in Chinese art institutions.3 He lives as a nameless giant in China, apparently protected by his international fame and the high status of his family in the Communist Party. Despite the surveillance and censorship, this means that he can live a relatively ordinary life and continue with his artistic work. He has stated many times that he regards the continuation of his artistic work as a duty and as a way of maintaining his dignity.
SOCIAL PRACTICE, CONCEPTUAL FORM, GRANDSCALE
With the great recognition and significance that Ai Weiwei enjoys today, it is difficult to understand that it was just a few years ago that he had his international breakthrough in the art world. At the Sydney Biennial in 2006 he exhibited World Map (2006), a work that thematised China’s share of the cotton and textile industry at the global level. Then in 2007, for Tate Liverpool, he made the large light-sculpture Fountain of Light, a work that symbolised the failed ambitions of the Communist state. But the work that truly got everyone talking about him was Fairytales, an interventionist work for Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, when he invited 1,001 Chinese citizens to the town, where the Brothers Grimm were born. Most of these Chinese had never before been outside China. Ai Weiwei had equipped them with identical, black-and-white suitcases, and accommodated them in large dormitories furnished according to Chinese traditions with simple beds and traditional textiles. Part of the work consisted of 1,001 Chinese chairs from the Ming and Qing dynasties, distributed among the various exhibition venues in Kassel, and the large installation, Template, comprising 1,001 old window frames and wooden doors from the northern part of China, where centuries-old villages had been torn down. Ai Weiwei consolidated them in a temple-like construction that collapsed in the course of the exhibition period. Ai Weiwei simply regarded this as an extra dimension to the work.
Fairytales includes all the important features that have characterised his practice ever since: the politically engaged and socially critical work, the conceptual starting point and the distinctive aesthetic, the large format with the implicit relationship between the individual and the mass.
The huge scale of so many of Ai Weiwei’s works in terms of time and effort, as well as physical size, means that they also end up indirectly thematising China as one of the most important superpowers in a globalised world. But they also thematise China as a country, in which the individual by no means enjoys a status as in the west, and many of Ai Weiwei’s works take as their theme this very relationship between the individual and the mass.
Ai Weiwei’s often executes his artworks in collaboration with others: volunteers, assistants and wood, glass, metal and porcelain artisans. His large installations are time-consuming and labour-intensive to produce and, from an economic point of view, it would be impossible to make them in very many places in the world other than China. Many people were involved in the collection of the children’s names for Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, (2008-11) after the earthquake in Sichuan. With the help of these many volunteers, Ai Weiwei interviewed people and gathered data from the relatives of the more than 5.000 schoolchildren, who died because the school buildings, had not been reinforced properly during construction. The hammering-out of the many tons of crumpled steel reinforcement for Straight (2008-2012) required several years of work from countless assistants. The same goes for Sunflower Seeds (2010), in which he revived porcelain production in the town of Jingdezhen after a period of economic decline. Historically, the town had been famous for manufacturing the finest porcelain. It took 1,600 workers two-and-a-half years to manufacture the hand-made porcelain seeds. The collective character and the interactive aspect also applied to the visitors in Kassel. They were invited to sit on the chairs, or to walk on the sunflower seeds, as was the intention at Tate Modern.4 So, in its combination of art and life, Ai Weiwei’s practice includes elements from the avant-garde tradition; ranging from Dadaism and the “social sculpture” of Beuys, to the politically committed art of the 1990s.
For Ai Weiwei the interconnection of art, social critique and politics hark back particularly to Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, whose work and thinking he got to know while living in New York from 1981 to 1993. For example, he draws on the black humour of Dadaism in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), borrowing his conceptual starting point and the ready-made aspect from Duchamp. This legacy can be seen clearly in those works, in which he uses utility objects from everyday life: ready-mades, which he reprocesses to create new meanings. These include Colored Vases (2015) and Grapes (2014). These are works made from the old Chinese furniture, vases and antiquities, which relate to Chinese history and culture, and which he collected and purchased, when he returned home from the USA. In his art he uses these antique, forgotten and devalued Chinese objects – in a transformative action – to celebrate their meaning and value.
SILENCE AND FURY
This balance of powerful political content with a distinctive, idea-based formal idiom characterises Ai Weiwei’s works – the silent manifestation and the underlying indignation.
The work with the Citizen Investigation and the search by the countless volunteers for the child victims of the Sichuan earthquake, shows how Ai Weiwei transforms an activist starting point into powerful individual artworks: Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, (2008-11) is a shocking work – quite simply just rows and rows of names and birth dates. Meanwhile, Straight, another work inspired by the same event, is a monumental, highly physical artwork, consisting of tons of crumpled metal reinforcement bars from the earthquake, which were transported to Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing and then straightened out. The work was installed so the iron bars became a landscape after an earthquake: a gentle yet brutal topography with tectonic fractures, which silently encompass the whole gruesome story.
Sunflower Seeds is another example of an artwork with visual strength and critical content: a large, light-grey surface, minimalist and poetic in its expression. It takes a while before the viewer realises that these are not real sunflower seeds, but porcelain seeds. The whole underlying context for the work is Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Mao was always depicted as the sun, and the people as sun-flowers turning their heads towards him. The sunflower seeds also point to Mao’s agricultural reform, “The Great Leap Forward”, which unfortunately failed and resulted in millions of Chinese dying of hunger. But the huge scale of the stadium work, the 100 million hand-made seeds, every one of which is unique, is also about China as a vast country and about the relationship between the individual and the mass.
What gives his art such fascinating power is that he has succeeded in combining aesthetic strength with a critical stance. Ai Weiwei’s art shows that aesthetic form and significance can push us as human beings towards new awareness.
THE INTERNET AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Although Ai Weiwei’s name is censored internally in China, and his opportunities to express himself have been curtailed, he continues undaunted with his artistic practice.
He follows his many exhibitions all over the world online. For example, he will keep an eye on his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London via video walkthroughs, emailed ground plans etc. This way of working also enabled him to make site-specific works for the prison island of Alcatraz. He has never actually seen the place, which means that, ironically, he can verbalise the importance of freedom of expression, while he himself is subject to strict limitations.
The main work in this exhibition consists of portraits of 176 political prisoners, built using LEGO bricks. These are people from many countries all over the world who, like Ai Weiwei himself, have been deprived of the freedom to speak, or to write about what they believe in, and who are in prison or in exile because of their beliefs or political affiliations.
His critical approach has not abated, and in connection with the exhibition at Alcatraz he has stated that he sees “the aim of art as the struggle for freedom”5. As an extension of his artistic work, almost everything that Ai Weiwei does is about communication, relations and politics. He believes that the Internet is such a global and powerful medium of communication that it will inevitably be difficult to control. Despite the many consequences, Ai Weiwei continues his work of combating corruption and the lack of freedom of expression. Besides his many hours of activity on the Internet every day (including social media such as Twitter and Instagram), Ai Weiwei holds daily meetings with people from all over the world, who come to visit him in his studio. He gives Skype interviews and contributes video papers to international magazines and conferences. Most recently he directed a short film in Berlin, Berlin, I Love You, remotely from his desk in Beijing.
Ai Weiwei’s strong personality and his consistency are fascinating, so it is often the activist Ai Weiwei who is in focus. However, this exhibition at Faurschou Foundation principally demonstrates his strength as an artist and allocates the artwork itself the main role. As Warhol also did with Pop Art, Ai Weiwei usually works within the traditional framework of the art institution and shows that art possesses qualities, which can transcend structures and assume social relevance. Ai Weiwei has been unusually successful in exceeding the limits of the art institution and setting the agenda outside as well as inside the world of art. This is because the works are in themselves so simple and powerful in their expression that they have proved to have a huge impact. That is also perhaps why they are afraid of showing them in China.
- “Why this fear of art? Because art can clearly, very sensitively, make sense to everybody, can speak the truth so clearly, and can make complicated issues very simple and innocent. Art can be so powerful and can destroy this kind of corrupted structure. So I think as artists we bear a responsibility to make those very essential principles attractive, sexy, and understandable. I think that is why I still can call myself an artist.”6
1 Ai Weiwei in keynote speech at the conference “The Fear of Art”, The 32nd Social Research conference, New School for Social Research, New York, February 12, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnBnjcKYuRs
2 ArtReview Power 100: http://artreview.com/power_100/2011/ and http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-15285939
3 In Beijing Ai Weiwei’s works have been shown at Faurschou Foundation Beijing in a solo show in 2009 and alongside Liu Wei in 2011. Recently he has been censored out of exhibitions in both Shanghai and Beijing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnBnjcKYuRs/
4 Ai Weiwei had imagined that the public would be able to walk on the sunflower seeds. Unfortunately it emerged after the opening that the porcelain seeds produced far too much health-hazardous dust, so the work was enclosed so the public could walk on it.
6 Ai Weiwei in keynote speech at the conference “The Fear of Art”, The 32nd Social Research conference, New School for Social Research, New York, February 12, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnBnjcKYuRs
Interview with Ai Weiwei
[In physical book only]
Published on the occasion of the exhibition:
Organized by and presented at:
20.03.2015 – 22.12.2015.
Ai Weiwei Ruptures © 2015 Faurschou Foundation, Copenhagen
All rights reserved
All works by Ai Weiwei © 2015 Ai Weiwei. Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
All texts on the artworks by Jannie Hagemann
Anders Sune Berg
Prolibro Book Paper 120g
Munken Polar Rough 150g
Printed in Denmark by Narayana Press
Cover image: Ai Weiwei Studio