The lesser-known face of China’s most famous living artist
“Yes, but is it art?” Here’s a quote from a 2013 blog post commenting on the works of Ai Weiwei, China's best known contemporary artist and government critic.
Many people wouldn’t really know how to answer. And that included Weetabrics until last month, when he saw an ambitious exhibition, minimalistically entitled “Ai Weiwei”, at the Royal Academy of Art in London. For before being one of hundreds to visit the gallery that day he mostly knew the man through his big finger, well-documented confrontations with the Chinese authorities and anecdotal photography – but hadn’t seen much of his actual productions.
The show doesn’t leave much room for doubt. Weiwei’s brilliance at conveying messages through metonymic yet stunning artwork is here on spectacular display. His largest productions are magnified by the commanding volumes of the Royal Academy, which give the exhibition the intelligibility, grandeur and unity of a single installation.
And yet the sculptures the gallery has managed to transport to the British capital – the logistics of which Weetabrics is still trying to fathom – have many things to say. Some speak compassionately of China’s mundane life and traditional culture, expressing regret in seeing them brushed away by the country’s current chiefs and exposing the frailty of what is supposed to replace them.
Such is the case of “Bed”, an undulating wooden mattress that is in fact a three dimensional map of China made of timber coming from the rubbles of Qing dynasty temples. Tables, stools and stones from past centuries are put through a similar creative destruction process, resurrected in beautiful objects that are no longer fit for purpose. It is the essence of a fading country that transpires through this surreal recycling of design, material and texture, one that Weiwei wants to reveal and remember.
Such concerns seem absent in photographs displayed in an adjacent room, which show the artist purposefully smash a Han dynasty vase. But here the exhibition has another raison d’être: denounce the blind brutality of the country’s current regime. The most eloquent work dwelling upon this theme is Straight, 96 tons of steel rods from collapsed buildings painstakingly straightened to form an impressive wavelike volume. The sculpture acts both as a homage to the 90,000 who died during Sichuan’s 2008 earthquake and a silent accusation of the corrupt officials who cut corners on building standards to fatten their wallets.
But there is something else the exhibition is commenting on all along: the significance of Weiwei as a social commentator - and his commitment to being an agent of change in today’s China. And this is where the show is both at its strongest and weakest.
Many of the works displayed illustrate Weiwei's incessant struggle with the authorities. An instance of this is when he organised a massive crab feast for his Twitter followers days before the Chinese government concluded a Kafkaian procedure aimed at destroying his Shanghai studio (“crab” is an homonym of “harmony” in Chinese, a word often used in regime propaganda to justify censorship). Weiwei produced a myriad of porcelain crustaceans, currently stacked in a corner of one of the Academy's rooms, to commemorate the celebration (which he couldn’t attend himself as he was in assigned residence).
Another thing that transpires throughout the show is Weiwei’s application at documenting every aspect of his struggle, as well as his genius at utilising social media to publicise it. Also evident is his use of strategies and techniques also known to pop artists to make his art accessible, replicable, marketable and, let’s face it, lucrative – through painting Coca-Cola on the replica of an ancient vase, for instance, or sculpting marble gas masks and CCTV cameras.
And herein lies the biggest shortfall of most attempts, in a museum or on a screen, to study the global modern phenomenon that is Ai Weiwei: they often dwell too rapidly upon the ambiguities of the man himself.
Rarely is any question asked, for example, as to why Weiwei accepted to help build a stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics before making no secret of his disapproval of the manifestation. Seldom is it reminded, sources familiar with the artist note, that he first tried to deflect tax evasion charges the authorities used to hold him in solitary detention towards his girlfriend. Not much attention is paid to the artist’s merchandising savvy and lucrative business, from which he derives a considerable wealth.
Of some stories often heard about him, sources suggest, only one side is generally known. Weetabrics understands, for example, that a Weiwei’s entourage's refusal to play ball may have been partly responsible for the UK’s delays in granting him a visa so that he could inaugurate the Royal Academy exhibition – a government mishap he lost no time in disclosing to his Twitter fans.
This is not to discredit his political and artistic pursuits. Weiwei is doubtless sincere and talented; the Royal Academy exhibition demonstrates both with brio. But his case would be further strengthened if future reviews of his art made him a less opaque figure.