Celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei may not be allowed to travel outside China, but that hasn’t stopped his works from being taken across the world. Ahead of an exhibition of his recent documentaries at Clark House this fortnight, Time Out tells you five things you need to know about the 55-year-old artist who is a thorn in the side of the Chinese regime.
He simply won’t shut up He is an artist, architect, antiques dealer, designer and professional blackjack player, but Ai is known at home and abroad primarily as a trenchant critic of China’s totalitarian government, through his art and in his vociferous presence on the internet, particularly on Twitter. Ai’s activism has extracted a price: he was detained at a secret location last year, his studio in Shanghai was demolished and he was slapped with a tax evasion fine of over 15 million yuan (roughly $2.36 million). He was released on bail on the condition that he wouldn’t be allowed to travel out of China for a year, and he is under surveillance. “There is a lot of pressure but it makes you feel so much stronger because you are now related to a large number of people’s hopes and you can do something to benefit that,” Ai told Time Out Hong Kong in an interview last year. “It’s worthwhile to say something to change the conditions of other people.”
The redoubtable artist has found a way to turn up the volume every time the government tries to muzzle him. He has turned his studio into a work of art, and shares writings, pictures and videos about his life in captivity through the internet. From run-ins with the secret police to his affection for cats, which roam in his studio, and occasionally destroy his architectural models, it’s all there on Twitter and YouTube. As the documentaries that will be screened in Mumbai illustrate, Ai often turns the camera back on those watching him – the secret police who monitor his studio and record movements of visitors – interrogating them about their intentions and even calling the local police to have them arrested.
The works speak volumes too Ai’s practice, which spans sculpture, installation, photography and performance, has been subtle as well as provocative. He has smashed antique urns to pieces, repurposed traditional Chinese furniture into bizarre sculptures and photographed himself holding up his middle finger to Tiananmen Square. Ai’s most acclaimed project outside China was at the Tate Modern in London in October 2010. He scattered 100 million hand-crafted, porcelain sunflower-seeds across the floor of the gallery’s Turbine Hall to allude to China’s troubled history, particularly to the Cultural Revolution, during which sunflower seeds became a staple food for most of the population.
One of Ai’s most important activist interventions was his involvement with a citizen-led investigation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Thousands of children lost their lives during the quake because of the sub-standard construction of school buildings. One of the volunteers who recovered the names of the children who perished – a list that the government had refused to release – was arrested for asking questions about the construction quality. Ai was physically attacked when he tried to attend the activist’s trial. In his documentaries Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry, which will be screened in Mumbai, Ai explores the events surrounding the investigation, the trial, his assault and subsequent surgery.
Protest runs in the family If Ai’s life is any indication, he has grown up with the belief that he should never back down, a lesson he probably picked up from his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing. Accused of having rightist sympathies, Ai Qing was exiled to remote regions of the country for two decades between 1958 and the late ’70s. Ai was an infant at the time. It was because of his father’s ailing health that Ai returned to Beijing in 1993 – he had been living in the United States of America since 1981 – eventually turning into one of the most important cultural figures in contemporary China. “This is a society lacking in discussion, in frankness,” Ai told Time Out Hong Kong. “That’s why we have such media control, because nobody can afford to discuss different viewpoints. ‘It’s not my problem’ is the usual excuse. But I am not opposite this government. Any government in any country which has problems must be examined by its citizens, or by individuals. Criticism is healthy.”
Everybody else loves him Ai is perhaps one of the most widely documented Chinese artists, particularly in the West. His art reflects his interest in the West, particularly in its affinities with the conceptual practices of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Living in New York City for most of his time in the US, Ai was part of a community of expatriate Chinese artists. He took from Duchamp the idea of presenting found objects as art, but successfully absorbed it into his art practice only after he returned to Beijing and became interested in the crafts of China. Since then, Ai has put to use both modern and traditional methods of craft production to talk about China’s past and present.
Well, almost everybody Some Chinese artists criticise Ai for ignoring the complexity of Chinese society and pandering to a simplified view of the country. The Chinese government too sees a foreign hand behind Ai’s actions. A 2011 article in the state newspaper Global Times, titled “Ai Weiwei will be washed away by history”, states: “We must say that without the support of the West, Ai is literally nothing. The obstacles Ai meets are actually just acting against the outside forces that are pushing Ai against China.” Yet Ai’s following within the country and abroad continues to grow – his followers on Twitter have even posted nude pictures of themselves to demonstrate solidarity against a charge of pornography that was slapped on him last year.
By Zeenat Nagree on March 30 2012 11.35am