Ai Weiwei’s Fight for Art and Justice

Image from
Image from "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," a film by director Alison Klayman

This week, the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry -- a gripping portrait of an energetic, obsessive visionary -- opens in select cities nationwide. The film’s young director, Alison Klayman, followed the larger-than-life Chinese artist and provocateur for two years as he mounted two blockbuster international exhibitions while enduring surveillance and harassment from the authorities. Since 2008, he has been working with a team of volunteers to name and memorialize the 5,000 children killed in the Sichuan earthquake, when their poorly constructed schools collapsed -- work for which he has been detained and physically assaulted.

As the son of a major poet, Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei witnessed firsthand his country’s violent treatment of artists who fell foul of the regime. Having been a loyal Party member for many years, his father was suddenly branded a “rightist” and he and his family were exiled to rural China when Weiwei was a baby. On his return to Beijing at the age of nineteen, Ai Weiwei joined one of China’s first avant-garde art collectives, and moved to New York in 1981. He was deeply influenced by these years, spent in the company of artists and activists galvanized by the AIDS crisis to use their creativity to drive political change. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, he returned to China to explore art’s potential to change his own country.

So Sorry, one of the exhibitions covered in the film, was a 2009 retrospective at Munich’s Haus der Kunst [House of Art]. The artist covered the façade of the museum with 9,000 brightly colored children’s backpacks, in a pattern that spelled out one Sichuan earthquake mother’s bleak remembrance of her daughter: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.” The book accompanying the exhibition looks back at Ai Weiwei’s work in multiple genres. Its cover shows an image from one of his best known and most provocative video works, Dropping the Urn, in which he holds up a Han Dynasty vase and lets it smash on the ground, a wry allusion to the Communist Party’s violence toward China’s artistic heritage.

Ai Weiwei further explores issues of cultural authenticity and the global art market in Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, a worldwide touring exhibition (with accompanying book) currently on show in Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Twelve monumental bronze animal heads represent the signs of the zodiac and stand in for the originals -- created during the Qing Dynasty for the gardens of an imperial palace outside Beijing -- which were looted in 1860 by British and French invaders.

Both these exhibition guides include excerpts from what the critic Hans Ulrich Obrist has called Ai Weiwei’s “social sculpture,” the blog the artist wrote regularly between 2006 and 2009, when it was abruptly shut down. Ai Weiwei’s Blog offers a bound collection of his posts organized chronologically, under titles both high-minded -- “Chinese Contemporary Art in Dilemma and Transition” -- and much more blunt: “Bullshit is Free.” The entries, including reminiscences about Andy Warhol and the artist’s thoughts on Barack Obama, range widely, and the cultural references run deep, requiring plenty of footnotes. But the book provides unique insight into the artist’s world, and its pronouncements are delivered with humility and humor. A good companion to Weiwei’s own writing is the series of wide-ranging interviews conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist, which are collected in the volume Ai Weiwei Speaks, affirming the artist’s commitment to communication and open dialogue.

The current London Olympics offer a chance to look back at 2008, a pivotal year for contemporary China. Ai Weiwei was creative consultant for the famous “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, although he would later distance himself from the project and the “pretend smile” of the games, especially in the shadow of the Sichuan earthquake. The political reform manifesto Charter ’08, signed by 350 activists including Ai Weiwei, was in essence a call for the country’s leaders to live up to their stated Olympic ideals. Yet one of its drafters, the writer Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is still serving an eleven-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained for eighty-one days and forbidden on his release to give interviews or travel outside China. Yet he continues to live online. Given his precarious political position, one of the best ways to experience the ongoing artistic project that is his life, and his fight for intellectual and social freedom, is to follow him [translated into English] on Twitter: @aiwwenglish.