Essays on Education Aesthetics and Ideas


The New Artist: Reflections on Ai Weiwei

One of the curious facts about Ai Weiwei is his ability to pull together into one person most, if not all, our major frameworks for thinking about artists and what it is to be an artist.  We see Ai the postmodernist, blithely painting the Coca-Cola logo onto an ancient Tang Dynasty urn, or, even worse, breaking Han Dynasty pottery—sacrilege to a culture steeped in Confucian thought and its reverence for the ancestral.  

In almost stark contrast to this, we see him as a master craftsman, trained in the skill of traditional Chinese woodworking, as in his Map of China, where the individual elements of the wooden sculpture are joined together without nails, following the method of classical Chinese carpentry.

Again, almost despite himself, we see Ai as genius, an original creator.  This certainly helps his works fetch an increasingly higher dollar value in a system which casts a blind eye to the postmodernist cry against genius, against original creators.  If not earlier, the branding of Ai as genius was certainly cemented this Spring when the Hirschhorn Museum brought his solo exhibition, "According to What?," to Washington, DC in triumphal fashion.  


"The world is changing. This is a fact. Artists work hard to change it according to their own aspirations."
— Ai Weiwei

Perhaps most people who are familiar with the artist resonate with his political activist and agitator side. It's this aspect of his personality and work that is most visceral, and has allowed Ai Weiwei to single-handedly "make art matter again," as many people have said of him.  Most striking in this regard is his installation piece Straight, which follows on his criticism of the Chinese government to investigate the death of nearly 5,200 school children in the wake of the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province.  The piece, which looks like a fault line stretched across a gallery floor, is composed of recovered rebar from the buildings destroyed in the earthquake.  Ai and his team spent the better part of two years straightening the metal, and in all, the piece weighs over 38 tons.  

Another facet of Ai's artistic persona is international architect, most famous for his design of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium, typically referred to as "The Bird's Nest".  Add to this his role as publisher and graphic designer (he recently designed a splendid cover for Time magazine) along the lines of a Shepard Fairey, one would think that we have exhausted most, if not all artistic possibilities.  

But now, with the release of his first music album, a heavy metal collection entitled Divine Comedy, we see yet another side of Ai Weiwei, artist as rockstar.  (While it is doubtful that the he will do a tour of live shows to promote his new album, unable as he is to leave his native China, he did make a virtual appearance at a recent and curiously bad Laurie Anderson concert in Toronto via Skype.)  

All these roles that the Ai Weiwei is able to combine by confusing our understanding of the role of art and artist coalesce in his newly released music video for "Dumbass", the single from Divine Comedy. What we see Ai doing in the video brings to light something that the modernist model of the artist as genius or visionary must necessarily elide.  The new model of the artist that Ai Weiwei is pioneering pushes the embodiment of the artist, his very materiality, to the fore.  The artist is in a sense just as important, if not more so than the work of art, precisely because he is so present with it, present like a reality tv show.  

This is different from the sort of godlike status a Picasso or Pollock might have achieved.  For all we know about these artists, their greatness transcends their physical presence and we tend not to think of them as living creatures but rather through the lens of their great work.  This is also much different than, say, those contemporary flesh-centered painters such as Jenny Saville, John Currin or Eric Frischl who take as their subject human tissue itself and all its resonances with the frailty and vulnerability of our anatomical makeup.  Instead, what Ai Weiwei seems to be doing, especially in this video, is to push the artist in the mundaneness of his physical and psychological being into the foreground of his work.  This is not altogether entirely new for Ai, but certainly the medium of the video allows him to embrace and distill its practice.  

The video recreates, from the artists perspective, his 81-day detainment in a Chinese prison.  In the video, we see him sleeping, eating, defecating.  There are long sequences of Ai taking a shower.  We see him wearing cheap t-shirts and plastic flip-flops.  We see his hair dishevelled, but not in the intentional Andy Warhol way.  We see him frightened, alone in the presence of anonymous others.  We see him unable to fall asleep.  The video seems to move from his Stoic arrival to a deepening anxiety written on his gaunt face and graying hair.  

"This so-called contemporary art is not a form but a philosophy of society."
— Ai Weiwei

He's always with very youthful guards, always being watched.  The music reminds one of the sleep depravation techniques used in Guantanamo and other US detainment centers. The political activist-artist is clearly seen, awash in a totalitarianism that has been exported from abroad, exported recently—hence the youth of the guards. Harkening back to his roots, Ai stands as the ancestral craftsman caught in the vortex of a capitalist-communist system for which he can do no better than offer himself up, in all his flesh, as an example of what happens psychologically to individuals within this system.

In the omnipresence of the watchful guards, we see art enter as the video degenerates into a dream, supposedly what he imagines his guards imagining.  Specters of his past work, notably his Hei Xe ("river crabs," 2010), come back to haunt him. All distinctions of role become blurred. In the dream state, the guards become chefs  or attendants to Ai the executive, cat walking  in his posh hotel room with call girls, and we see the artist playfully dressed as a cop whipping the now naked guards as they shower.  In the end, there is no difference between the artist and his captors.  Both inhabit a world shorn of anything resembling freedom, either positive or negative versions.  At the end of the video, Ai's hair is shaved off by a child with electric clippers, and the artist then becomes, without hair but with plenty of makeup, one of the call girls.  

But surely the video is not all about the artist.  In a recent interview with Edward Wong of The New York Times, Ai remarked that his new video is “not really about me. I think it’s about how the power of the state tries to manage and maintain this kind of control.”  For sure, but are we really to think that it is not the artist who is also and equally attempting to manage and maintain this kind of control?  The roles are reversed, or at least confused.  And, in the end, it's this confusion of roles that is what Ai Weiwei does with such aplomb. He allows himself, in all his earthly materiality, to be there.  And its by his being there, persistently, that he seems to reject all ideals and ideologies, attempting to substitute it with a strict adherence to the contact between world and skin.