Ai Weiwei and the Art of Politics

On July 23rd, 2015 Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei left China for the first time in four years. But only after the British Government denied Ai a 6-month visa because he neglected to report tax fraud charges that the Chinese government pressed (and later dropped) in 2011.  These charges, which were followed with Ai’s mysterious 81 day detention in prison, have been widely criticized as an attack against Ai’s outspoken political artwork. Britain’s visa denial validated these charges creating a headline-hot PR mess. Britain Interior Minister Theresa May reversed her department’s decision to offer Ai a short 20-day visa and authorized the artist’s original 6-month request.

Many conjecture that Britain’s original denial was made to please Chinese authorities, as Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the Kingdom in early October. Nonetheless, Britain’s unclear politics have thrown Ai and his politico-artistic mission into international headlines as the world wonders: when will the West’s stance on free expression cease to be corrupted by its preoccupation with political clout? How can we establish an honest standard of legitimacy when evaluating contentious criminal charges that emerge from what many criticize as being kangaroo courts? What does Britain’s initial visa denial say about the transparency and validity of the nation’s internal immigration system?

But first: who is Ai Weiwei?

A Warhol-inspired, multi-media artistic master, Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist whose provocative works are meant to challenge modern Chinese government and society as well as to provide a vague vision of his ideal future China. Having received formal artistic schooling in the 1980s at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York, Ai’s work is richly informed but retains an element of spunk and spontaneity that one might expect to find in the work of an un-coached street-artist. Ai is not afraid to adapt his quasi-mystic political philosophy and liberal conception of human rights into art no matter the medium: his work manifests itself as photography, sculpture, architecture, blogs and even tweets.

With 283 thousand twitter followers and a career made famous by multiple headline grabbing run-ins with the Chinese Government, in 2011 ArtReview named Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world. However, in regard to his supposed power, Ai argues that the Secret Police play a larger role in his prominence in the public eye than does his art itself; “they create me,” he told the Smithsonian in a 2012 interview.

Chinese authorities not only played an important role in Ai’s current fame, but also influenced the shape and experiences of his childhood. Ai’s father, Ai Qing, was a controversial poet who challenged China’s totalitarian culture; in the 1950s, he and his family were sent to a labor camp. Coming back to public life some five years later, Ai Weiwei recounts a somber society: “No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces. After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.”

Such artful criticisms of the rising Chinese regime are embraced by Western states. Ai is a champion of art and human rights in western eyes partly because, as the Smithsonian posits, he embodies just what the West desires for an increasingly powerful China: a critical mirror for that power. Also contributing to Ai’s recognition and favoritism in western eyes is the fact that he spent his formative years as an artist in New York in the 1980s (cue Warhol, bold fonts, performance art, frenetic line drawings and purposeful avant-garde-ism). Ai was influenced by the contagious freedom of self-expression characteristic of New York and took particular interest in the work of Warhol, Dada, and Jasper Johns.

When Ai returned to China to care for his sick father in 1993, the streets were indeed more colorful than they had been in his childhood, but perhaps more disillusioning still. President Xiaoping was in the thick of shaping modern Chinese communism—that is, a consumer society with a strong central government. Ai told the Smithsonian: “I could see so many luxury cars, but there was no justice or fairness in this society. Far from it.” He feared that the nation’s sudden contentedness with romantic Taiwanese pop music and Levi’s jeans would allow China’s citizens to seek identity through “a certain style” which would thereby “saves a lot of thinking.”

In response, Ai threw an artistic counter-culture tantrum. He published photographs of himself leaping naked through the air to challenge the conformist nature of his society. He criticized the Olympic games, a cultural pillar of the rising nation; he created the “Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.”, which was later the subject of State investigation and tax fraud charges, and he voiced uninhibitedly his disapproval of increasing State power. In 2008, Ai compiled a list of the names of 5,335 school children killed in the Sichuan earthquake due to shoddy school-building construction. We can view this work not only as a challenge to the competency of the Chinese Government in its ability to protect its citizens but also as an attack on Chinese curriculum itself; Ai has expressed his distaste of the brainwashing that he believes corrupts primary education as well as Chinese media (after a childhood of communist pop, today Ai refuses to listen to any music whatsoever).

Despite his cynicism, Ai does find some hope in the advent of the Internet. It might help schoolchildren obtain a more holistic version of the information they are presented at school, or allow other artists like himself to reach out to a wider audience. Ai himself is an excellent example of the many ways in which cyber-space can be utilized as a platform for international performance art. His exhibit Moon invites citizens from around the globe to participate in a minute act of self-expression by contributing to the work via their computer.

In all forms, Ai’s work reflects an angular bitterness directed at the China of his childhood while incorporating beautiful relics of China’s distant past, reflecting his desire for a future China that celebrates and flourishes its expressive artisanal roots. For example, in his work Fragments (2005), Ai assembled pieces of Qing-era temples into what can from above be discerned as a map of china. Can the remnants of the past, which are strewn aside in the present, be utilized in some way to inform, found, and strengthen the China of the future? Fragments reflects Ai’s socio-political philosophy, one that unifies past and future while criticizing present; it was installed in the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Slacker Gallery.

Despite the chaos one initially feels in the presence of Ai’s work, his philosophy is one of unity. Ai dreams of the ancient China in which he says there existed a “total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, moral understanding and craftsmanship.” Art, he says, had the potential to achieve great power: “It’s not just a decoration or one idea, but rather a total high model which art can carry out.” Surprisingly, given Ai’s avant-garde style, he greatly admired Vincent Gough because through his work he “expressed his views of the universe, how it should be.”

Ai himself claims that his work is a symbolic gesture—but symbolic of what? His prophetic vision of China’s future and the social transformation that he hopes will allow the values of ancient artisanal china to flourish once again.

For the time being, Ai’s provocative, often interactive exhibitions seem to be attracting unintended participants who add even more poignancy to his work. Chinese authorities have repeatedly validated Ai’s criticisms with their anti-Ai allegations, and now British authorities find themselves fumbling at the feet of Ai and his masterpieces as well. Another character on Ai’s vast palate of political criticism, the British government’s recent denial and then admittance of Ai’s visa request calls into question the validity of Western support for Ai in the first place. Ai, a spitefully transparent artist who was previously defended by Western regimes during his 2011 detention in China, now finds himself at the hands of a contradictory regime. But, alas, like his other art-related run-ins with political figures, it has only increased his international recognition and the relevance of his work and so affirming his belief that, “Everything is art, everything is politics.”

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