Ai Weiwei is nowadays on the front page of the world of contemporary art. We review the career of the artist, ranked number one in the 2011 list of the most influential people in the world according to Art Review magazine.
Ai Weiwei is a 54-year-old Chinese artist, who rose to worldwide fame last year after being captured by the police of his country. During the 81 days he was held captive, no information was given about his state. He was afterwards released and sentenced to a house arrest that he serves until today. But the interest sparked by the figure of Weiwei is due not only to the police case that had him as a protagonist, but to his impressive artworks.
His body of work is extensive, spanning throughout several decades and, most importantly, very critical about the current situation in the People’s Republic of China. Just to name a few exhibits, he was shown his work in the 1999 Venice Biennale, Documenta 12 in Germany and the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2010. The piece he presented in Documenta was called Fairytale and consisted of bringing a thousand and one people from different parts of China to the city of Kassel, so that they could dedicate themselves to doing absolutely nothing.
Being able to have a time fully dedicated to leisure is a situation that many citizens of the Western democracies can enjoy, but that, for those who have working days of up to 16 hours in the Asian superpower, this can only be part of a “fairy tale”. With humor and irony, the artist highlighted one of the main problems affecting his native country. This kind of collective performance can be framed within the abundant body of work with a political message that Weiwei has been producing for a long time. We can cite as examples some of his works like Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (where he breaks an old Han dynasty vase, in a act of rebellion towards an oppressive and authoritarian tradition) or Coca Cola Vase, where, in a similar gesture, he painted the Coca-Cola logo on a 5000-year-old ceramic vase.
But definitely, the most shocking of his installations is the one that results from the investigation made about the death of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Due to the collapse of a significant number of school buildings (the so-called “tofu schools” built with weak structures due to the use of very low budget materials, since the funds disappeared in the midst of many corruption cases) thousands of children died. The number of victims remains unknown since the Chinese government did not want reveal it, in addition to having kept the names of the victims a secret.
The research conducted by Weiwei, working alongside other activists came to gather more than 5300 victim names, a list that the artist posted on its website. The scandal was immediate : then came the censorship, and his blog was closed by the government.
Even if the investigation was shut down, the artwork resulting from this research ended up being very visible and impossible to ignore. Ai Weiwei presented an installation called Remembering that consisted in the montage of 9000 children’s backpacks on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, the coloured backpacks formed a giant sign that read, in Chinese letters, “He lived happily in this world for seven years”.
In the documentary that Alison Klayman made about her life and work (Never Sorry, released last year), we see interviews with passers-by, among them a girl who says “Ai Weiwei made me change my way of seeing things … now I think that you have to hide the truth. ” It is striking to think that someone could really believe that hiding the truth is something necessary – but in the China of today, a pillar of the world economy, hiding the truth is a widely accepted habit. Otherwise, how could any country grow at such impressive rates if the workers’ rights were fully respected? How could a regime as strict as the one ruling China still be in power if it were not through the concealment of sensitive information? In the cracks of the regime, the eye of our artist wonders. But the cracks are starting to leak, and if there is any place for leaks, that place is the Internet.
Shock value: the importance of the gesture
On April 3rd, a year after being arrested for alleged “financial crimes” that he’s been forbidden to talk about, Weiwei installed webcams in several corners of his house, so that everyone could watch his life within the walls of house arrest. In this way the artist reversed the paradigm of the surveillance society associated with terror and discipline, by laughing on its face. The artist filmed himself in situations of his daily life that he broadcasted live and direct as he knew that he was constantly being watched by the government, showing that he had nothing to hide. “I hope the authorities can also show some transparency as well”, he said when asked about the initiative. 46 hours after having been put on the air, the WeiWei Cam had to be closed due to orders from the Chinese government. But, as with many contemporary artists since the appearance of Marcel Duchamp, what mattered was the gesture, the intention, the shock value of the artwork.
Ai Weiwei’s broadcast had been watched by millions of Internet users around the world. Taking a selfie of oneself in an elevator while the police is arresting you would seem like the performance of a provocative artist who likes scandals. But what interests our artist here is not the scandal in itself but the questioning of the limits to freedom of speech. Even if in China, freedom of speech and scandal give the feeling of being the same thing.
Weiwei films and photographs his life, obsessively. He does not hide anything from anyway and shows himself on camera as much as he can. He takes pictures of himself in a hospital bed, giving the finger to those who made him end up there. As if it what protected him was his fame, his celebrity status. A paradox of the modern world : by joining the western media world, Weiwei ended up being protected by the massive media complex that brought so much misfortune to many celebrities who would have preferred to remain anonymous. The showbiz, for now, protects our artist. Let’s hope that his critical spirit doesn’t lose itself in the sweetness of success.
Published in El Gran Otro, paper version, January 2012.