June 2011

Arts & Letters

Art of dissent

By Terry Smith
Ai Weiwei

Among the many symbolic resonances attending Ai Weiwei’s disappearance on 3 April into the custodianship of the Chinese authorities is the sad state of his website, once among the most trafficked in China. You enter as you always did, onto his minimal signature and a simple image of a fly on the wall. There is a schematic set of links, very few of which open to anything but error pages. “Works” shows images of three of Ai’s sculptures. One is a huge, thick block of pristine cedar carefully shaped into China’s national borders. What is usually seen as a surface outline here rises from a huge depth, which we then envisage as a violent, arbitrary cut in a rare natural material, as if a majestic tree has been truncated for the sake of national witness.

Daring, apparently impossible physical conjunctions of images and materials join together in Ai Weiwei’s art, where they serve as oblique yet biting commentary on other, less daring, less avant-garde art. Ai’s political activism combines subtle metaphor with crude confrontation. Increasingly, his art and activism have fused, as the contradictions driving the ‘Chinese miracle’ become ever more blatant. Contemporary artists everywhere have blurred the boundaries between art and the lived conditions in which it is made, just as everyone’s immersion in social media has, with the encouragement of Myspace, Facebook and Picasa Web, become more artistic. But the conditions in China are unique.

Ai’s prominence in China flows as much from his well-deserved reputation as a major international artist as from his recent activity as an activist who has tirelessly drawn attention to poor governance, corruption and human rights abuses in China. Consultant artist to the ‘bird’s nest’ design of the National Stadium in Beijing by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron – built for the 2008 Olympics – Ai ridiculed the official presentation of the Olympics as a puerile putting on of a ‘happy face’. Against that façade, he sharply drew the shoddy ‘tofu’ construction of schools in Sichuan province – a failure of regulation that led to the deaths of 5300 schoolchildren. Exploding official efforts to play down the tragedy during the Olympic period, he and his team collected detailed information about each child, and about those responsible, posting this on his website, giving interviews about it and including reference to it in some of his art installations.

To many, this mixture is a fatal confusion of art and politics: poor, compromised, ugly art meets uninformed, ill-judged, inexpert politics. Art is for pleasure, distraction and elevation of the spirit above the imperfections of life; politics is best left to the professionals. Given the mess that the professionals are making of virtually every kind of political system in the world today, though, rubrics such as these stand as their own refutation. Narrowing art to just some of its purposes is similarly short-sighted. Demanding sameness is a recipe for deadening the creativity essential to art’s ability to supply even the limited pleasures beloved of conservatives.

Ai’s art frequently plays upon widely held social presumptions about art. Invited to show at documenta 12 (2007) – the greatest mega-exhibition of them all, held every five years in Kassel, Germany – he conceived a delicious parody of the restrictions to travel that characterised China during the Mao years. Taking the Scheherazade story as his cue, he convinced the curators to sponsor a month-long visit to Germany of 1001 Chinese citizens who had never travelled before. In a further gesture, Chinese chairs were set out in circular clusters throughout the exhibition. These welcome oases led to informal, often lively discussions, and the forming of friendships: civil society in microcosmic form – exactly the kind of formation most threatening to Communist Party centralists (whose most profound historical memory is precisely the transformative potential of a gathering of dissidents, however small).


China opened its intellectual borders after the end of the Cultural Revolution, just as postmodernist pastiche, sensationalism and performance art were reaching their ascendency in the West. Ai does not regularly make works as confrontational as some of his colleagues, although he has made his fair share. One series of photographs shows him making ‘up yours’ gestures in front of iconic buildings around the world, including at Tiananmen Square. Another photograph reveals him jumping, naked, while holding a toy horse in front of his genitals. The six-character caption to this work involves an aural play on words that literally describes Ai’s actions yet may also be read as: “Fuck your mother, the Party Central Committee.” This work combines an insult to the ruling party with a violation of the centuries-long taboo on representing nudity within Chinese culture. Acts such as this have led some to conclude Ai is an eccentric, suffering from a mild madness, a kind of compulsive attention-seeking, or that he is jumping on the bandwagon of those Chinese artists who know provoking the Communist regime plays well with western art collectors. Cynicism of this kind leads to an infinite regress in which no art – indeed, no ethical action – is possible. It is precisely to break the self-defeating circuitry of this kind of cynicism that artists such as Ai make works that sit uneasily on the boundaries of the permissible or that erupt abruptly in order to reveal where these boundaries lie.

Ai’s insistence on the permeability of art and life is more than a principle of avant-garde art, now almost a century old (Duchamp’s Fountain was exhibited in 1914): it is a necessity for the making of responsible art in China today. In Ai’s case it extends even to his constant interaction with the police and other official authorities. The artist and his friends, acquaintances and assistants are under regular surveillance. Just as relentlessly, he and his supporters film those who film them, confront those who confront them (even to the extent of frequently visiting police headquarters to complain about the surveillance and about provocative behaviour by police). Before Ai’s disappearance, these films were placed immediately on his website, along with detailed commentary. Since being taken down in May 2009, this imagery has been shown on other sites and in exhibitions, as well as in many kinds of media outside China.

A book of English translations of over 100 of Ai’s blog posts for Sina, the Chinese MSN-style web portal, along with a few other short essays was published in April as Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006–2009 (MIT Press). The last blog post, from 20 November 2009, is particularly chilling:

What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap, or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both the joy and the ability to fly. This kind of political organization is pitiful.

Bury those children, give them kidney stones, and act like it’s nothing, exercise violence near and far, but don’t dare to face the facts … and this is how you make it in this world? I really can’t believe it.


The Chinese government announced on Wednesday, 4 March, that Ai Weiwei was under investigation for “economic crimes”. Informal leaks to a regime-friendly Hong Kong newspaper suggest that he has evaded taxes, distributed pornography, destroyed evidence and plagiarised other artists’ work. Ai’s family, friends and fellow artists hotly dispute each of these claims.

Locking up Ai Weiwei signals to the international art world that domestic priorities come first when dissidence appears in China. With one eye on the ‘Arab spring’, authorities have moved quickly to squash anything that might precipitate a ‘jasmine revolution’.

Other than the meagre selection of “Works”, the only significant page remaining on Ai’s website comes up when you click “Concept”. It is a conceptual diagram of how the artist sees relationships between the forces that shape his world. One cluster radiates out from the words “Life/Culture”; it includes “Identity”, “Sports” on a branch connecting to “Olympics”, “Love” connecting to “Sex”, and “Food”, which bifurcates to “Modern” and “Traditional”. (Ai briefly ran a restaurant.) Another cluster builds around “Politics”, and links to terms such as “Marxism” and “Government” connecting to “Corruption”. The vertical line at the centre has “Art”, with many connections at the top and “Architecture” at the bottom. (Ai was, for a time, a practising architect.) No prizes, however, for guessing the concept that sits at the core of this entire conceptual world: “China”.

Like most of his contemporary artist colleagues, Ai Weiwei remains a profound nationalist. The impending tragedy of the current situation is that he may fall victim to those whose nationalism is no less absolute but whose vision of China’s future has a rather different conceptual architecture.

Terry Smith
Terry Smith is an award-winning art historian and critic, a professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh and a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales. His books include What is Contemporary Art? and The Architecture of Aftermath.

Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn', 1995. Courtesy private collection, USA.

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