Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homage to Ai Weiwei

"I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product."
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 87)

PBS Documentary
"Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favor"

As I type this, Occupy protesters all over the U.S. are facing eviction from parks where they have set-up camp. I listen to voices on both sides of the debate about whether or not what they are doing is futile or even justified. From my own personal perspective, I am proud of the commitment that they have exhibited and the inspiration and voice that they have provided for others. Whether or not someone agrees with what the Occupy protesters are fighting for, I think that most of us can agree on one thing: that freedom of expression is critical to our survival as a society.

Imagine if you will the opposite. Rather than being able to voice discontent, that our words and ideas were squashed, and even more frightening, that we were punished, sometimes to the point of death, for speaking out against what we feel must change.

Artists and writers have for centuries taken on the role of the dissident. It isn't an easy road for these philosophical warriors. They are often scorned for their honesty and outcasted from their communities. But without these movements, change and progress does not occur for the betterment of the whole.

Where would women be today if the suffrage movement was not successful? What if the Civil Rights Movement had not occurred? What conditions would workers be exposed to without the Labor Movement? Certainly, rational, caring beings would not condone such inhumane injustices and inequalities. Born in the latter part of the 20th century, the fights that others have fought is just a story in a history book. Without living through the situation, it is sometimes difficult to empathize or fathom a time when certain rights for people did not exist.

That I am able (or allowed) to write this blog is a right that I or many others take for granted. Other than a bit of self-censorship in the name of sensitivity, I know that I may freely voice my concerns and opinions without fear of major retribution. I know that I can make a statement about the shortcomings of our government or those in power and that other than a few disgruntled readers there will be no major backlash. At this point in my life, in this country, within this venue, I feel fairly confident that no one will force me to stop speaking my view.

This was not the case for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. A child born shortly before China's Cultural Revolution, he grew up surrounded by censorship. His father, famous poet Ai Qing, was exiled to the far reaches of the remote Gobi Desert when Weiwei was only one year old. For sixteen years, Weiwei's studies consisted only of Chairman Mao propaganda and the occasional but hidden references to art and poetry. He was discouraged to learn to read, and books were nearly non-existent after they were all burned. To be a well-read, well-informed intellectual was to put the self at risk for imprisonment or worse. To us, this is a contradictory life - to be born to an artist and an intellectual - but to not be exposed to those riches of the mind.

Weiwei left China in 1981 and moved to New York City, a place he considered to be the center of the contemporary art movement. He had already begun schooling in Bejing, but did not complete his studies. In NYC, he studied art at Parsons School of Design, originally was a painter and drawer, but soon took to sculpture and photography. He was also a master Blackjack player frequenting the casinos of Atlantic City, and surrounded himself with poets and intellectuals. In the PBS video posted above, Weiwei speaks of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square where liberals, artists, poets, musicians, homeless, and poor people congregated. Upon trying to impose a curfew for the park, a movement against government and police brutality commenced. Weiwei documented the event through photography and found inspiration in the uprising of the people, perhaps offering a glimmer of hope for his own oppressed home country.

Weiwei returned to Bejing in 1993. From 1994-1997, he worked on a series of three books called The Black Book, The White Book, and The Gray Book. The Black Book was purely written words by artists. He was concerned with ideas and concepts more so than actual visual images. The following books included images that were provocative in post-Cultural Revolution China. The books were picked up by a publisher in Hong Kong and considered to be illegal and "underground". This was perhaps the beginning of Weiwei discovering the power of his own voice within the oppression of his home country. Although China proclaimed to be a different place than it was in years previous, freedom of expression still did not, in Weiwei's eyes, exist.

In 2006, Weiwei was pretty much forced to begin a blog as China worked to improve its reputation, to prove that it was a more open and free society. Weiwei was nervous at first being that he did not consider himself a good writer. But soon he found this venue as his greatest form of self-expression. He wrote freely about government, culture, politics, art, and the human and social condition.

"The techniques of the Internet have become a major way of liberating humans from old values and systems, something that has never been possible until today"
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 6)

This new found freedom was of utmost importance and provided immense satisfaction. Weiwei contemplated whether or not he would someday be able to give up everything else and only write blogs. He posted sometimes as many as 100 photos a day, and when his blog was shut-down by the government in 2009, he had written over 200 entries and accrued millions of readers.

The entries preceding the shut-down of his blog pertained to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where several school buildings had collapsed killing thousands of students. Ironically, many of the surrounding buildings remained standing, eluding to shoddy construction of the educational structures. Weiwei accused that the government was shirking its responsibility and his political blog entries roused feathers of government officials. They did their best to silence him.

His sculptural and architectural works are steeped in political innuendo - an outcry against injustice. Influenced by the artist Marcel Duchamp and compared to German artist Joseph Beuys, Weiwei uses everyday objects that already carry with them personal familiarity to a wide population, and reconfigures or destroys them to make his statement. For instance, In reference to the Sichuan earthquake, Weiwei collected nine thousand children's backpacks to create an installation that spelled out the words of a grieving mother "She lived happily in this world for seven years." In other artworks, "Dropping the Urn" and "Colored Vases", Weiwei drops or dips in paint historical ceramic artifacts. To many, the act is a jaw-dropper, witnessing the destruction of something that is to the greater population considered highly valuable. Weiwei challenges our perception of value and how and why we make such judgments.

Weiwei's artistic popularity and esteem has earned him several awards and placement in various countries' biennials. Within his own home country of China, he was solicited to design the 2008 Summer Olympic stadium known as the "Bird's Nest". Later, Weiwei spoke out against the Olympic event and stated that the Chinese government used the event as propaganda to try to be seen in a positive light to the rest of the world, when in fact, it is a highly oppressive country where freedom of speech still does not exist. He refused to have photos of himself taken with the stadium.

The stadium is only one of many architectural projects by Ai Weiwei. His first inspiration was a book that he found in New York bookstore about a house that the philosopher Wittgenstein had built for his sister. He was taken with the intricate details of the structure and returned home determined to build a studio home for himself.

Weiwei discovered eventually that his artistic projects would require the hands of many. He had concepts but not enough time to see the ideas to fruition by himself. He once organized 100 architects to collaborate. Another time, for the Kassel, Germany biennial Documenta 12, he conceived and facilitated 1,001 Chinese tourists to visit the exhibit, providing them clothing, lodging, housing, and sightseeing opportunities in what he calls "Fairytale."

Perhaps one of his most widely recognized and recent works was at Tate Modern in London in 2010, titled "Sunflower Seeds."

Video of Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seed project

In Sunflower Seeds, Weiwei solicited the help of 1,600 Jingdezhen residents to cast and paint 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Jingdezhen was once a bustling porcelain factory town but no longer exists as such with many out of work. Over the course of two years, the sunflower seeds were created and then installed at Tate Modern. The symbolism of the sunflower seeds is directly related to the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao, who saw himself as the sun and his followers as the sunflowers. But there is also a dual meaning. For Weiwei, sunflower seeds were shared and eaten amongst people - a symbol of nourishment, friendship and nostalgia.

The sunflower project is particularly interesting to me. On one level, I connect with it because I am a potter. I know the process and I can easily imagine the painstaking work involved to make so many intricate items. Interest was also piqued because of the number 1,600. Here in Lubec, that is our approximate summer population. I imagined the whole of our town being involved with one single project, one single goal. That led me to thoughts about the once thriving canning factory industry that employed so many people here, and the huge negative economic impact it had on the families when the factories closed. I understand that it was not just a loss of money, but also a loss of personal identity.

Weiwei's work moves me. Critics lean mostly in favor of his work, commending him for not only exquisite details and craftsmanship, but also for his social/political statements. These commendations come, perhaps, more so from critics outside China. Within China, there seems to be those who disdain his vocalizations and consider him more of a showman, or in some cases, a threat. I view it as an artist using his gifts to grab the attention of viewers so that he may educate and inspire. Would I ever go to such lengths? My own artwork is often political, but I have not given in, not yet anyway, to the idea of spending time in jail or putting my life on the line for my values. That's not to say that I have not contemplated civil disobedience, but for now, I prefer to do my work from outside a jail cell. I do, however, have the utmost respect and admiration for Weiwei's perseverance and passion. Having thought about my own role as an artist, the following quote resonated with me:

"If artists betray the social conscience and the basic principles of being human, where does art stand then?
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 27)

Weiwei's discontent with the Chinese government has landed him in a quite precarious position. He has been beaten by police to the point of suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. His studio in Bejing was demolished by the government citing that he did not have proper permission to build. He was recently (April 2011) detained by authorities and held for two months without an official charge. When later released, it was announced that he owes nearly two million dollars in back taxes and fines, all of which Weiwei denies.

What draws me most to Weiwei is his smile. I think of all these obstacles that he faced and still faces, obstacles which would kill the spirit of most human beings, offering nothing more than a sense of defeat. Yet, I see interviews and photos of him...smiling.

There is a flood of articles and videos out there. He is an addictive sort to study, myself spending many hours perusing the Internet for anything Weiwei. I recommend starting with a google image search. Begin with the powerful images then move onto the reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the quick read "Ai Weiwei Speaks: with Hans Ulrich Obrist" (Penguin Books, 2011). The book was captivating for me because it was in Weiwei's own voice. Next on my list, the translated blogs. The PBS video "Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favor" is definitely worth a watch.

I leave you with one last quote - and perhaps a hope that you will think about the Occupy Movement here in our own country - not merely as a group of people whining about their conditions, but as a movement that by the very nature of being vocal is helping to protect all our rights and freedoms associated with personal expression.

"A nation that will not search for its own past and not be critical of it is a shameless nation."
Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2011, pg. 14)

1 comment:

Susan wilder said...

Thank you for articulating Wei wei's position in current world and art history! Your personal response , artist to artist, is a work of art in itself. Bravo!