Is Ai Weiwei the plucky, disciplined Horatio Alger of the art world or its lucky, virtuous Oliver Twist? Despite a harrowing life story that surpasses even Charles Dickens’ novels for melodramatic reversals of fate, Ai now enjoys global art world celebrity: as a sculptor, photographer, architect, consultant (the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium was his idea), designer, writer (published recently in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek), editor, curator, publisher, entrepreneur, bar/restaurant proprietor, blogger and political muckraker.
As such, he’s played a leading role in the global spread of Chinese art, which, of late, has had plenty exposure in the Bay Area – most notably at the 2008 Mahjonggexhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Half-Life of a Dream show at SFMOMA. Now comes Ai Weiwei, a small selection of the artist’s work at Haines Gallery in San Francisco.
It arrives heavily freighted. When the government legislated last year that all new Chinese computers come equipped with Green Dam Youth Escort filtering software, Ai called for a one-day Internet boycott. When more than 5,000 children died in collapsed schoolhouses in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai’s efforts to fix the blame earned him and ten young volunteers beatings, in August, 2009, from the local police. Ai’s injuries exacerbated a month later, when he was showing work in Munich (at the Nazi-built Haus der Kunst, of all places!); the brain hemorrhage required drainage to relieve the pressure, saving the artist’s life.
Ai, who once aspired to be “the Picasso of China,” has been dubbed the Chinese Warhol; but neither sobriquet reflects his additional standing as a public intellectual, China’s Solzhenitsyn. Some art writers find his prodigious activity exasperating. “Dissident, communist, capitalist, institution-building, merry-prankster-cum-Cassandra,” mused one. “Can someone prove to me that there is a real person behind all this?”
There may be only one, but he has an outsized personality. Born in 1957, Ai was the son of Ai Qing, a Communist poet who was jailed and tortured by the Nationalists in the 1930s; celebrated in 1949 when Mao Zedong took power; and later denounced for his criticisms of the regime. He was forbidden to write and exiled to remote rural areas for 20 years of “self-criticism”—which meant cleaning public toilets. His family joined in those hardships. They lived in a hut dug in a hole in the ground with bushes for a roof, while his father endured abuse from fearful, angry peasants. Ai: “You can’t imagine the insults. Everybody wanted to join in.
Children threw stones at him, their parents poured ink on his face. He was the enemy.” Ai, the son of an enemy of the people and the state, saw his father’s philosophical attitude to all this as a triumph: “He made the toilet so clean, he would see it as a work of art—like a museum, like MOMA.” When the government finally admitted that its “re-education” of 100,000 intellectuals had been a “mistake,” the family moved back to the capital, where Ai studied at Beijing Film School along with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, now famous film directors, and started his career as art activist, helping to start Xing Xing, the Stars Group, composed of young artists who chafed at China’s esthetic backwardness. In 1979 the young artists mounted an unauthorized exhibit on the sidewalk in front of the National Museum of Art which attracted 80,000 visitors during its one-day run before the authorities closed it. Nevertheless, Ai found the artistic atmosphere, still dominated by socialist realism, stifling, and moved to New York in 1981, where he studied briefly at The Parsons School of Design with Sean Scully. For the next 12 years he did odd jobs to survive and absorbed many influences: Allen Ginsberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and, most importantly, Marcel Duchamp. He also took – and this is no poetic/literary exaggeration – literally 10,000 pictures: of friends (Ginsberg, director Chen Kaige, composer Tan Dun), politicians (Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton), and various revolts, both esthetic (Wigstock) and political (the Tompkins Square riots, 1991 Gulf War protests).
Returning to Beijing to care for his aging father, Ai jumped back into the cultural fray, publishing collections on contemporary art (Black Cover Book, White Cover Book, Gray Cover Book), sponsoring provocative exhibitions (the notorious Fuck Off in Shanghai in 2000), promoting the burgeoning performance art scene, founding a gallery for contemporary art, China Art Archives & Warehouse, and creating an architectural firm and a design company, both featuring the word “Fake” in their titles, a reference to Beijing’s artistry at counterfeiting. Both are located in his Fake-designed compound in Beijing’s ever-expanding suburbs, near the now-famous 798 Art District, which has become a major tourist attraction.
Despite Ai’s capitalist empire, his sculptures, like much conceptual art, are not self-explanatory; a little knowledge of Chinese history, Western art and current events is required to decode them — but the gallery notes are helpful. Snake Bag, a nearly 60-foot-long serpentine sculpture that undulates along a gallery wall, is composed of 360 zipped-together children’s backpacks, mute symbols of small lives lost, like the bags found in Sichuan Province’s earthquake-toppled ruins. With its black and white patterning, the meandering reptile seems skeletal as well—a mouthed tentacle reaching up from the primordial underground. The two porcelain Dress with Flowers sculptures serve a similarly elegiac purpose. Ai bought two children’s dresses from a grocery store in the Jingdezhen and tasked the porcelain artisans there with duplicating their detailed ornamentation. The resulting garments lie flat on risers, never to rise, animated. Another ceramic tour de force is Kui Hua Zi (i.e., sunflower seeds), comprised of 550 pounds of porcelain seeds, laboriously crafted and heaped into a conical pile. Symbolizing the famine diet that just barely sustained starving peasants, they resurrect from historical amnesia the disaster that was Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.
The transformation of everyday objects into precious materials is the strategy as well behind Marble Chair, a chair of traditional design in which every piece carries an implied familial or social function. Carved from a solid block of marble (as were its many siblings in the Documenta Fairytale installation), it embodies the immortality and artificiality of art—and of empire, much like the lakeshore Marble Boat at the Summer Palace, built in 1755, destroyed in 1860, and rebuilt in 1893.
The two Marble Plate sculptures here derive from a Yuan Dynasty vessel that Ai collected after his return to China; they seem to have been cut across the middle, with the halves reassembled at right angles to resemble open bivalves, or perhaps, Duchamp’s Fountain, purified, spiritualized and estheticized by Arp or Brancusi. Colored Vases coats various pieces of Neolithic pottery with blobs and drips in the candy colors of 1960s house wares; while 10 Owl Houses is a wall-hung installation of hand-painted, porcelain vessels, outfitted with apertures large enough for Western screech owls to enter. They will soon have the opportunity: Gallerist Cheryl Haines’ For-Site Foundation will install them on May 16 in two cypress trees at Fort Scott for a year-long Presidio Habitats exhibition.
While Ai Weiwei’s art combines his sociopolitical concerns with a high order of conceptual imagination and visual elegance, it remains to be seen if his philosophical and humanistic concerns can be confined to the esthetic realm. He has mused and joked about giving up art and starting an office for investigations, or even entering politics. His criticism of the nationalistic exploitation of the Beijing Olympics is uncompromisingly idealistic: "It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment."
Furthermore, as Chinese art becomes more established in the international art trade, it will lose its underdog cachet and become just more product. Culture is a business these days. The Chinese government, whom Ai denounces for being insufficiently ideological (i.e., idealistic, probably), surely wants its nascent art industry to propagandize for China, as “soft power,” in the same way that American Abstract Expressionism was used to tout a nation supposedly made great by rugged WASP individualists; Chinese versions of Time Warner and News Corp. are purportedly on the way, and Chinese stars like Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared in the pro-PRC 2009 film, The Founding of the Republic, released on the 60th anniversary of the Revolution. (In the martial-arts fantasy, Hero, Li also portrayed the assassin, Nameless, who chose to die for the sake of national unity, and the First Emperor, rather than avenge old wrongs.)
Ai criticizes the government’s cynical realism (to use a term generally reserved for Western-oriented Chinese Pop painting). “The Chinese,” he says, “aren’t interested in ideas, but in showing objects.” Still, regardless of whether we’re in the East or the West, art generally consists of ideas embedded in objects, and it almost always follows the money.
Along with his peers, Ai has benefited from the worldwide acceptance of Chinese art in recent years, an achievement made without the benefit of a collector base in China. Ai: “There has never been a nation, a region that has received such a warm [global] welcome or investment on such a scale as this.” It is ironic that such an outspoken critic of power is helping develop China’s art industry, as both the artist and the government, engaged in a careful pas de deux, surely realize.
Ai Weiwei @ Haines Gallery through May 29, 2010
Watch the Art 21 video documentary of Ai Weiwei’s Munich exhibition “So Sorry”.