“Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.” — Ai Weiwei
by David M. Roth
When Hans Obrist asked Ai Weiwei “What turns you off?” Ai had a ready answer: “Repetition.” Lately, though, Ai seems do be doing a lot of it. Like Andy Warhol with whom he now shares the spotlight at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Ai, the world’s best-known dissident artist, is now repeating himself, updating and recontextualizing his past works to reflect the latest gyrations of China, his “totalitarian readymade.” Evidence is on view in Overrated, an exhibition at Haines Gallery in which the artist, as if attempting to outflank critics by choosing that title, restages two of his most famous bodies of work: Study of Perspective (1995-2014) and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). In the first, Ai had himself photographed with his middle finger extended before 40 world landmarks ranging from Tiananmen Square to the White House. In the second, he destroyed an ancient artifact and photographed himself doing it. Within the context of his biography and China’s recent past, the political significance of both acts is widely understood.
What thrusts the two series into a new light is their presentation against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling wallpaper that depicts gilded surveillance cameras fashioned into chandeliers from which hang chains, handcuffs and animal figurines — all gold.
Ai’s goal, as always, is to expose China’s hypocrisies through art and activism. So with that in mind, gold would seem to be the ideal vehicle for depicting the tools of repression employed by the hyper-capitalist Chinese police state. While President Xi Jinping, has attempted to smooth off some of the rougher edges of state-run capitalism (at least with respect to environmental degradation which poses untenable public health threats), his allegiance to Maoist methods of control, intimidation and absolute obedience to his own agenda has become obvious to China watchers. Orville Schell recently wrote in The New York Review of Books that the crackdown on free expression in China now rivals that of the Cultural Revolution. It extends not only to public intellectuals and their defenders and to disloyal party cadres, but to all segments of society – even to residents of foreign countries. On June 16, The New York Times reported that booksellers operating in Hong Kong and Thailand had been kidnapped to the mainland where they were imprisoned and forced to renounce books exposing official corruption. Which is why the placement of Ai’s bird-flipping self-portraits against gilded images of surveillance and physical restraint is a brilliant move.
Arrayed in three rows and stretching the length of the gallery’s longest wall, Ai’s gestures multiply in power through repetition, signaling his distaste not only for his own country’s systemic failures, but for power structures everywhere. By contrast, the urn drop, reworked
here as photos of Lego portraits, bring to mind one of the weakest aspects of the artist’s installation at Alcatraz. There, Ai’s surrogates, operating under the auspices of Cheryl Haines’ For-Site Foundation, installed large-scale images of dissidents that were made of actual Legos, as opposed to photos of Lego portraits, which are what we get here. They succeed only in blunting the power of the originals.
The remainder of the show is given over to marble and porcelain works. Blossom, the strongest among the latter, is cordoned off by ropes in the gallery’s back room. It’s easy to see why. On the floor rests a square of white porcelain flowers, exquisitely sculpted and densely packed so as to resemble a hormone-fed succulent garden. The level of detail invested in each “specimen” transforms the sculpture into a voluptuous object, a testament to high craft that mirrors, in impact, what happened when Ai placed millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower
seeds on the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010; they became objects of veneration. In the case of Blossom, however, there may more going on than meets the eye. Ai’s Alcatraz show, @ Large, also contained a porcelain sculpture called Blossom, about which Jeff Kelley credibly speculated, saying it might be a reference to the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” of 1956 in which Mao “invited critics of the Party to come out of the shadows only to later imprison or execute them.” Though these events are now distant, they bear repeating, lest we forget that Ai’s family lived through them. In Ai’s visual lexicon no object represents merely itself.
Here it’s worth noting how Ai refashioned Warhol’s methods of appropriation to suit his own needs. Rather than use packaging and pop iconography to both mock and glorify consumerism and middle-class values, Ai figured out a way to turn appropriation to his own ends, seizing upon China’s history of artisanal craftsmanship as a kind of archeological tool for excavating and examining the country’s the past. With a large network of artisan/specialists who enjoy wide latitude in how they interpret his ideas, Ai has created a model of collective creativity that harnesses individual initiative to showcase portions of China’s cultural past that the government has yet to crush.
Seen in this light, the title Overrated is probably a joke, a self-deprecating reference the singular position Ai now occupies. Truth is, he may be the only person in China able to stage a global protest movement without paying the ultimate price (though he has at times come perilously close). Overrated brings us up to date with that struggle.
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Ai Weiwei: “Overrated” @ Haines Gallery through June 25, 2016.