Friday, 11 October 2013

AI WEIWEI - 2013


There have been two notable documentaries about the famous Chinese artist. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a 90 minute independent feature by Alison Klayman and Without Fear or Favour , a 50 minute television programme by Alan Yentob, for the BBC arts series Imagine. There has also been a shorter, supplementary one by Klayman for WNET Thirteen/PBS’s Frontline series, the 30 minute Who is Afraid of Ai Weiwei? All three cover the artist’s remarkable rise throughout the noughties and increasing activism, but with slight shifts in emphasis. Never Sorry and Who is Afraid of Ai Weiwei? concentrate on the political aspect of his work and the importance of the internet to activism in China. Without Fear or Favour focuses on his prolific output as sculptor, architect, photographer, curator, designer of installations, clothes, furniture, suitcases, amongst other things, dealer in antiques and precious stones, documentary producer and publisher of books, blogs and tweets that inevitably embrace political concerns in China. All three portray Ai as a courageous critic of an oppressive regime, dedicated to the cause of civil liberty and a transparent and fair legal system. All have ample access to the artist and abundant interviews on his aims and background. And yet the picture that emerges is puzzling in several respects, ready sympathy perhaps sacrifices a little too much in critical distance. Even when one allows that each movie brings its own agenda to the topic, they never quite deliver a whole or convincing story.

Just how the artist rises so quickly, after his self-imposed exile in New York for twelve years, is far from clear. Ai returns to China in 1993, as his father, a respected poet, succumbs to old age and illness. Ai participates and documents an underground avant-garde for the next few years, as well as acquainting himself with Chinese antiques and some dealing therein. In 1994 he founds a warehouse and exhibition space called China Art Archives and Warehouse, then, in 1999 he builds a house and extensive studio complex in Caochangdi, now an outer north eastern suburb of Beijing, at the time no more than a village. How he acquires the money for land, labour and building materials, much less the architectural and engineering skills necessary, goes unexplained. It is hard to see how a little dabbling in antiques finances so much after just six years, even in the Post-Tiananmen Square liberalisation. On Ai’s Wikipedia page, there is acknowledgement of his habitual gambling, indeed his standing in the world of Blackjack even now, but precisely what opportunities there may have been for that in Beijing at the time, are also ignored. But the question is not just where does the money come from, but how does he obtain the strict government permission for such an enterprise, given his seemingly peripheral standing in Chinese society at the time? In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry the artist confides that all such building is ultimately regulated by the central government (a propos the enforced demolition of his Shanghai studio complex in 2011) implying a surprisingly favourable standing earlier in his career.

Given the artist’s urging for greater government transparency, a little more transparency in his own affairs would strengthen his case. As it is, one can only suppose his father’s standing disposes at least some offices within government to view his son’s activities favourably. Around the same time, Ai is unexpectedly included in the 1999 Venice Biennale, yet Ai’s principal involvement has been to compile a series of books, published illegally, loosely documenting local performance artists, many of whom remain anonymous. The following year he co-curated an unauthorised satellite exhibition for the Third Shanghai Biennale. His artistic involvement in other words, has largely been unofficial and administrative. The favours escalate when Ai Weiwei is appointed an advisor for the main sports stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games, the ‘Birds Nest’ stadium, as it quickly became known. Alan Yentob breezily claims that Ai Weiwei designed the stadium ‘in his spare time’ but the winners of the open tender in 2002, distinguished Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, give a full list of architects involved in the project phases (2002-9) on their website, and credit Ai as no more than an artistic advisor. As is their custom, they like to align their projects with a certain fine art aesthetic. They are known for their allegiance to Joseph Beuys, for example. But in terms of actual design input, this amounts to not much more than lip service. In Ai Weiwei’s case, with no experience in large-scale public facilities, such as a sports stadium, using materials and a design style alien to Ai’s fairly flatfooted functionalist aesthetic and limited residential and light industrial experience, the appointment looks similarly tokenistic. At most, Ai admits to one intense ‘brainstorming’ session with Herzog and de Meuron in an interview in The Guardian in 2008, although still talks about the efforts ‘we’ put into designing and constructing the stadium. Actually much of the groundwork for the bid lay with the architects’ Allianz Arena in Munich - another bold stadium with novel transparent walls and strong diagonal pattern. Ai Weiwei was a shrewd political appointment for their bid, as a local courtesy, but at that point the suspicion must be that his credibility with the Chinese government did not rest solely with his artistic expertise.

Ai is not slow to capitalise upon the newfound prestige. In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, American critic Philip Tinari notes that once he has official recognition, he is included in many more international surveys as a matter of course (1st Guangzhou Triennale in China (2002), 1st Montpellier Biennial of Chinese Contemporary Art (2005), The 2nd Guangzhou Triennial (2005), Busan Biennial (2006), The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2006), Documenta 12 (2007), Liverpool Biennial International 08 (2008), 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale and the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial (2010) as well as co-curating a travelling exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Art - Mah-jong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection (2005), exhibited in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the USA and accepting an architectural commission, this time for a residence in New York in 2006, again significantly, in partnership with another Swiss architectural firm, HFF. Ai’s international profile only reinforces his approval at home.

With the growing acclaim, Ai’s sculptural work assumes a grand scale and impressive variety. The artist’s brand of mass-fabrication is perfectly in step with international trends, but to understand how his interests converge with Western tastes so conveniently, a little more background is helpful. The artist’s development is unusual, in that initially he studied at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and participated in various, performance-based activities with colleagues as ‘The Stars’ up until 1981 when he departed for America, indefinitely. He admits he had very little in the way of art education, either in Chinese or Western traditions, so that his stay in New York was an effort to understand an alien culture, politically, socially and artistically, with only the haziest of reference points. He was attracted to a progressive or ‘avant-garde’ aesthetic, initially as understood from the works of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. The somewhat impassive, managerial persona of the artists and dedication to provocatively modifying available or undervalued material obviously struck a chord. Ai’s youth, spent at the edge of the Gobi desert in deprivation and poverty during his father’s political exile, had compelled him to take a close interest in making his own furniture and many household items. As a consequence, he has a thorough knowledge of ceramics and casting techniques, joinery and many other advanced handyman skills. These afford him an unusual platform from which to appreciate the Readymade. Indeed, since his manual skills ran essentially to trade ends, the appeal of an avant-garde exploitation of such means is presumably for the intellectual respectability it then confers upon them. In this respect, Ai’s starting point is unique among artists drawn to the practice in that he does not seek to downplay traditional artistry in the interests of more challenging appreciation, but rather to extol trade or craft to more sophisticated ends.

From the outset his choice of objects – wire coat hangers, soup bowls, violins and shoes - remain domestic, intimate in a way Duchamp’s urinal, bicycle wheel and snow shovel are not. And Ai is not content to simply re-orientate the object or confound usage. Ai’s objects are physically rather than contextually modified, and so no longer strictly Readymades. But because of his exacting craftsmanship, they at least conceal any personal or expressive investment. The results are slick and register as something closer to Surrealism than Conceptual Art. Hanging Man – Duchamp (1985) – a wire coat hanger that contains a profile of Duchamp on one side can no longer function as a coat hanger and so surrenders a crucial aspect of the Readymade. Interestingly, in another work from this time, the coat hanger profile is filled with sunflower seeds, a motif that is to recur more spectacularly in the artist’s Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern in 2011. But by the 80s, the Readymade is no longer actually avant-garde, of course. Interest in the project has steadily shifted to the use of industrial components or modules in elementary arrangements (as Minimalism in the 60s and 70s) and then to outright products, often retail items, in the work of artists such as Jeff Koons and Chaim Steinbach, a move sometimes called Post Modernism, at other times misleadingly claimed as a branch of Conceptual Art. Throughout the 80s the shift is then from simply presenting products in ways that often echo retail display, to commissioning or fabricating novel products from standard manufacturing processes, a practice that might aptly be called the 'Readily Made' or perhaps 'Maximalism'. Artists such as Koons, Damian Hirst, Gabriel Orozco, Takashi Murakami and Wim Delvoye carry this direction further throughout the 90s. Because the artist’s ambit then effectively converges with that of the curator, indeed announces integration with design generally, this trend finds enormous institutional support throughout the international art world.

By the time Ai builds his sprawling studio complex in Caochangdi, he has grasped the industrial scale and vertical integration with arts administration that the Readily Made invites. But he is less interested in current manufacturing than recycling obsolete or antique furniture. Works from this time drastically modify Ming dynasty tables and ancient workshop stools and while the modifications again display exquisite craftsmanship and cancel obvious function, the source material signals not so much market tastes or techniques as a ruthless cannibalization of a moribund heritage. His work thus assumes an historical dimension distinctive amongst Readily Mades. Possibly it is the exhibition of these, in shows of contemporary Chinese art in Sweden in 1994 and Germany in 1996 (again, remarkably prompt recognition upon his return from New York) that help to establish his reputation. The historical meaning also announces a deeply ambivalent attitude towards modernisation and westernisation. On the one hand the works are taken as a rejection of the past, a retirement of function to strictly formal or decorative ends. On the other, they subtly signal the impossibility of properly adapting or modifying one’s inheritance. Under this reading the works flaunt a cultural absurdity or pointless compromise. In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a local blogger and follower of the artist, Hung Huang, regards such works as patent metaphors for the government’s flawed policies and incompetence.

While Ai’s sculptures comprise the bulk of his output, throughout the 90s he also documented his own staged performances with photography. This is the Conceptual arm to his work and these too surely go to quickly establishing his reputation in China. But Ai’s Conceptual works are problematic, partly because of the ends he pursues, partly because Performance Art and its documentation has inbuilt constraints as a project. Works such as the photograph of his wife, Lu Qing flashing her panties in Tiananmen Square in 1994 and Ai dropping a Han Dynasty vase (1995) are provocative cultural and social stunts more than documents of a performance stressing a bodily engagement with a task – the point of Performance Art. While Lu and Ai certainly perform discernible tasks, their content or context overshadows performance, pictorially and conceptually. The photographs fail to project adequately as Performance Art documents although unquestionably declare the artist’s contempt for authority and tradition. This problem persists in later, more collective works, where for example, various Chinese citizens including Ai are videoed insulting the government with a set phrase (at least formalising the performance), or where the artist flips the bird at Tiananmen Square in a famous photograph. But initially, his Conceptual works suggest not much more than youthful rebellion. However, with greater western exposure as an artist, Ai's message grows steadily more political and explicit.

At Documenta 12 (Kassel, Germany) in 2007 the artist presented two immense works, Template and Fairytale, one sculptural, the other a Conceptual project. Template was an outdoor, freestanding archway almost twelve metres high made from seven intersecting walls, all constructed from Ming and Qing Dynasty (1368-1911) doors and windowsills. Unfortunately a week after being erected, it collapsed in a violent storm. The artist conveniently regarded the wreckage as ‘better’. The point, like the earlier alterations to furniture, then becomes one of practical failure. Ironically, the following year the artist becomes involved in protests around a building scandal in Sichuan, where many public buildings, notably schools, collapse in a huge earthquake, apparently due to substandard materials and negligence by local authorities. They caused thousands of deaths. Certainly there is nothing utopian or positive about the recycling in Template and luckily there are no injuries from its collapse. Fairytale recruited 1001 citizens from across China to visit Kassel for eight days in relayed groups of two hundred, and entailed at least forty staff in logistics and administration. The ‘performance’ takes the form of an experiment in briefly exposing participants to a western lifestyle and greater freedom. Their wanderings are accompanied by the temporary placements of 1001 Qing Dynasty chairs. Record of the visitor’s ‘performance’ consisted of a video directed by the artist which details at some length the many frustrations volunteers for the project encounter in applying for a passport. Some are denied for the slightest of reasons or must return with document after document; others have to travel the length of the country in order to apply in the place of their birth. Again, as Conceptual Art, this fatally diffuses the project as performance, as documentation of a distinct response to a strict task or situation. Performance is too weakly defined, in spite of the artist providing specially designed luggage and clothing, even their temporary dormitories. Recording is more concerned with civil rights and bureaucratic issues in China, making it an informative and actually quite polished documentary, but hardly of just a performance. Yet the work draws far greater attention for Wei from the west because it confirms longstanding (and valid) criticism of China’s oppressive regime. Ai’s participation in Documenta 12 is funded by two Swiss foundations to the sum of €3.1 million. Ai is quick to see the advantages of playing to the west.

In August 2007 in an interview with Aljazeera he condemned The Olympics to be held in Beijing the following year as a false image of the nation, excluding most citizens and celebrating a corrupt ideology. He urged other famous artists participating, such as Steven Spielberg and Frank Stella to withdraw. Significantly, they did. Just as significantly, his views were not broadcast in China. But Ai’s public profile in the west was much higher for it. Indeed, he is by then surely the most famous Chinese artist the rest of the world has ever known. And he is perfectly aware of the advertisement this provides for the Chinese government and its modernisation policies. On the one hand he represents China taking a leading role in the international art world; on the other he persistently denounces practices directly attributable to the Chinese government. It is a delicate balance, for both parties. But the dynamics are not quite articulated in any of the documentaries. The emphasis in all three is on an artist challenging the government and a government reluctant to silence him lest it earn the disapproval of the west. The title Who is Afraid of Ai Weiwei? sums up the perceived dilemma for the Chinese government. Without Fear or Favour suggests the artist is a brave and impartial observer, Never Sorry that he is unrepentant for his actions, deeply distrusts official apologies. But Ai’s provocations are carefully calculated and profitable. By the late noughties he employs hundreds of staff in his various workshops, design, web and video production studios and in out-sourced fabrication. All three documentaries assure us that all of these activities are financed by his profits, yet there is little indication of where all these hundreds of artworks are sold or placed and at what price. It is not until around 2008, for example, that he acquires regular gallery representation in New York, with Mary Boone. Prior deals are for the most part direct or private, many others continue to be. Yet, as seen, projects run into the millions to finance and the scale of his installations continues to soar. The money trail is again troubling and ultimately undermines not just his aesthetics but his politics.

Ai is really a pet dissident for the Chinese government, a trophy critic. Where he is concerned, they fear western censure no more than they fear western indifference. He is primarily a marketing tool. So they tolerate his provocations in ways they do not for other activists. But the arrangement has its limits and when the time arises to curb his activities, their measures reflect this balance. This occurs in 2011 following his growing activism in Sichuan in 2009 and 2010, including a documentary on the deaths of around five thousand students due to substandard buildings, and a standoff in Shanghai in 2010 over bureaucratic red tape for another vast studio complex there. Interestingly, he is detained on the grounds of ‘economic crimes’. But the penalties no more than briefly confine his activities to China. There are fines, but these are virtually paid through donations from supporters in China and overseas. The penalties gently remind him of legal loopholes concerning tax and marriage they have previously overlooked in his case. It would seem to be a very Chinese way of conducting the law, a bit like their treatment of America’s request for the extradition of Edward Snowden. The letter of the law is observed, its spirit however depends entirely upon reserves of goodwill. Predictably Ai denounces his arrest and detention as political persecution. But everyone knows he has been treated leniently for a dissident or swindler. Many others get long gaol sentences for much less. Everyone also knows a little bit more about that money trail and where the favours run. Just as importantly, everyone also knows he is still free to make and exhibit art works, although his means have been reduced somewhat. Still, the martyr plays well in the international press, so the arrangement while hardly admirable, is undeniably astute.

Never Sorry and Who is Afraid of Ai Weiwei? cover his arrest and eventual release, but unfortunately lack details of the charges and penalties at the time of production. These are available on Ai’s Wikipedia page and its Talk page. Without Fear or Favour culminates in his enormous installation for The Tate Modern in 2010, Sunflower Seeds, consisting of a field of one hundred million porcelain life-size sunflower seeds, each hand-painted, each thus slightly different in marking. Sunflower seeds have a complex Chinese iconography and Without Fear or Favour explains that sunflowers often symbolised Mao’s devotees – the flowers always facing or following the sun, Mao thus seen as a divine or celestial leader. Sunflower seeds in contrast are a traditional source of food in times of famine, something peasants often carried in pockets to share with friends. They therefore carry a subtle egalitarian connotation. An immense hoard then suggests both absurd anticipation of lean times or an artistic dearth and seeds of friendship, if not a fanatical following. The seeds were produced in the traditional ceramics town of Jingdezhen, to the south of Beijing, by a team of 1600 artisans. Assuming each artisan participated in the painting, this amounts to 62,500 seeds per painter, an unbelievably tedious task requiring four precision strokes to each seed and begs questions of wages and timetable. Even if others contribute the numbers and duration remain numbing. The sheer logistics of the fabrication heavily frame any interpretation. Interpretations in Without Fear or Favour stress the collective versus individual identity of the seeds. But the abiding impression is of just a grey desert, an extravagant and arid vision for an oversized and suitably bleak venue. The artist intended that the public should walk and lounge upon the seeds, but this is quickly forbidden by Tate Modern for health reasons concerning a mysterious dust emitted by them with friction. Actually, even at the time of installation it is noticeable in Without Fear or Favour that the forklift drivers and spreaders of the seeds wear dust masks, and a hose discreetly soaks the bed at various points. So the health threat actually preceded the exhibition.

Other interpretations see the work as an imposing display of sheer manufacturing might, transforming the humble seeds into minor luxury or recreational items, in sufficient numbers. Sadly, this also implies a somewhat narrow and passive view of the public’s involvement, indeed of the function of art. Here we start to see not so much what is wrong with society, but with the artist’s approach. Such work carries the Readily Made to a sterile, essentially decorative end. Rather than demonstrate industrial standards and materials applied to an unlikely or difficult product, the work assumes a scale only to be accommodated by immense institutions, only to be realised through extensive corporate sponsorship. But much of the Readily Made’s impact rests on artists accessing industrial standards and materials on a provisional basis and preserving just this distance to projection. The works remain awkward prototypes. But where the artist assimilates mass production more thoroughly, the product points to something much less exceptional; at best an institutional niche. The result is a kind of corporate art, complete with bland, equivocal allusions, safe and acceptable sentiment. In this respect Ai’s business practices short-circuit his aesthetics. In his bid to become ‘too big to fail’ in the Chinese art world, he quickly becomes more of a manager than an artist.

The inflation of means and diminution of returns exposes grave inconsistencies. For example, his willingness to profit from his association with the Bird’s Nest stadium yet his condemnation of the Beijing Olympics looks hypocritical. For one who has insisted that architecture must respect context and custom, the stadium is virtually a white elephant following the games, is just as much a product of land grabs and government corruption as the rest of the Olympic construction (in truth, this is pretty much the norm wherever the games are staged). But Ai clings to its value as architecture or design, or replies that he ‘now turns down requests to be photographed in front of the stadium’ (from his Wikipedia page). That he should regard this as adequate reconciliation is telling. The self-regard and concern with PR only grow more pressing as the projects grow more expansive, even as they lose traction artistically. Ai is tireless in self-promotion, but it soon alerts us to problems with the product. His work deplores government tyranny yet flaunts just the kind of rapacious opportunism and networking that underwrite the regime. His entrepreneurial or curatorial brand is part of the problem that his activism supposedly opposes.

Within his sculptural works there are also puzzling anomalies. While works consistently preserve discarded furniture and architectural elements in varying degrees and others commission novel objects in traditional means, other works depart at curious tangents. Forever (2003) reassembles an array of bicycles, which while common enough in China bear no great traditional meaning or indeed appear notably antique or obsolete, although understandably are less common on China’s roads now. The assembly, removing handlebars and saddles to fit inverted frames together and more than one set of forks to a wheel is ingenious, but unexpected from the artist, perhaps suggesting an initiative from his staff. In 2011 a greatly expanded version was exhibited in Taiwan, featuring 3,144 bicycles, again prompting questions of logistics rather than interpretation or historical reference. Other works construct elaborate lighting fixtures, under the title Chandeliers, purportedly derived from Eisenstein’s film Strike (1925). But while attractive, these never quite summon up a time or place, much less an application or reassignment. The attraction for the artist is presumably to modify more recent furnishings to sculptural ends, to embrace illumination as a formal element. This ‘Maximalist’ aspect even finds surprising allusion to Vladimir Tatlin. Another surprising subtheme is nature or organic forms. This arises in the reconstructed tree trunks and others from ancient wooden columns salvaged from demolished temples titled Fragments, the arrays of tree roots in Rooted Upon (2009) the fields of ceramic watermelons and even the biomorphic ultramarine spheres. Later, animal and mythic content appears, much less effectively. Clearly not all works are explicitly activist or political. Yet Ai criticises a younger generation of Chinese artists for not being political enough. This looks ungenerous given the diffusion and subtlety of reference in his own work. He might just as well complain that they do not share his privileges. And it is the discursive or diffuse content to his output that finds western critics by 2013 readily separating the politics from the art, seeing the former as largely promotion for the latter, seeing the latter as often too slick or self-serving to strictly serve the former.

Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times
‘Tellingly, the opening label of the Hirshhorn show identifies Mr. Ai as “one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists” rather than one of its greatest or most original. Too often in this exhibition, the objects come off as a window dressing that is all but overshadowed by the celebrity, pronouncements and predicaments of the artist himself. They suggest that he doesn’t make great art as much as make great use — amplified by digital technology — of the role of the artist as public intellectual and social conscience.’

Canadian critic Gillian McKay wrote
‘The museum’s attempts to contextualize Ai Weiwei’s artworks in terms of his activism struck me as problematic. Adjacent to the backpack memorial is a gallery filled with Sichuan-related material—including the brain scans—which highlight his personal investment in the project. In a photo Ai Weiwei took of himself surrounded by police on the night of the fateful beating, the camera flash creates a halo-like burst of light above his head. Unfortunately, the emphasis on his personal martyrdom—which recalls the self-mutilating performances of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci—takes attention away from the children and their families. There is a disturbing sense in which an argument for his importance as an artist appears to be riding on the suffering of others.’

Both reviews address the artist’s large retrospective, According to What? (the title alluding to Jasper John’s famous relativist denial of formalism and a deliberately western allusion) which tours North America throughout 2013. The show probably marks the peak of Ai’s institutional approval, not because it has reached saturation point but because the international art world now slowly swings away from a Maximalist aesthetic, with its blurring of arts with crafts and commerce, self-promotion with information, communication with art. It is unlikely to return to Minimalism but there is a groundswell of reappraisal of the Critical Theory that underpins much of it. It is unlikely to discount the artist’s considerable achievements but unlikely to add to them. Just where the art world and Ai Weiwei are headed ultimately depends upon events in the wider world of course, in the global economy and its many victims. Ai is well placed to respond, but that too can quickly change. Commentary and documentaries do well to mind the bigger picture where the artist is concerned, do better to rethink it.

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