[19 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
Artists like to make their audiences work. Ai WeiWei is no exception. If things have been a struggle for him, then we too are meant to exert ourselves to appreciate his blog posts, ‘digital rants’, and general thoughts on the nature of life, work, politics, art and architecture.
These are dense writings and not always well-structured, and form part of his numerous acts of rebellion against the Chinese state. The lack of discipline, or seeming lack of discipline, is part of his artist persona. He is lauded by the West as being the epitome of the artist-rebel who has much to strive against under a totalitarian regime that blocks access to the internet. Therefore, he has used this very media to broadcast much exclusive and archive material.
Throughout the ‘80s and’90s Ai and other Chinese intellectuals and artists spent periods of time in the USA, studying and exhibiting. Ai chronicled these times in photographs. He has utilised a lot of this material to account for the formation of his ideas and generated more interest for his public persona through the publication of ‘ordinary’ snapshots of himself going about his everyday business. I use the inverted commas and the adjective ‘seeming’ about all of his work precisely because the very random feel and the off-the-cuff remarks and ‘rants’ are all very carefully worked out. There’s a knowing quality to all of them. He takes pains, however, to enable things to seem as though they are happening in a very natural way, with little if any preparation.
This is important. It’s all part of the cult of the artist, and he shares this element of seeming spontaneous creativity that in fact masks much debate, preparation and thought, with the Dada movement of the early 20th century. This too produced dynamic and rebellious works at a time when the insanity and oppression of the First World War had taken over. Ai lives under similar politically induced stress, and it’s necessary to show the artist as the provocateur and developer of ideas as well as the creator of objects and installations. In this very authentic publication the ideas are provocative and wise. There’s something for everyone, in fact: Ai on biology, cooking, television … But it is on politics and architecture, and the interface of those concepts at which he excels.
‘China has never created authentic cities or authentic urban citizens – urban citizens are free, they possess various interests that they pursue and protect … In authentic cities, all layers of society find their own means of stability and self-sufficiency. Conversely, Beijing is a society administered by concentrated power. Here, there are those who issue orders and those who bear the consequences … In a society like this there is no freedom to speak of, nor are there authentic cities.’ (‘Letting Our Mistakes Keep Us Down’, 2006 Texts, p.84)
The effort to penetrate these writings is worth the rewards one gains. Thoughtful and insightful, Ai demonstrates the potential that the online blog offers as a platform for debate and change. He’s a contradictory soul; advising on the building of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and simultaneously requesting a boycott of the games. He has received awards from the Chinese government, and yet been a victim of police brutality for his agitation over investigations into casualties of the 2009 earthquake. He is a product of a communist, atheistic regime, yet he’s spiritual and guided by a concern for people and their ‘dignity’ and struggle, and to this he returns time and again.
But the plug was pulled on his blog in 2009 and earlier this year he was placed under house arrest by the Chinese government. Rumours abound online, and one of the most recent news stories is that Ai has returned to the communication sphere thanks to Twitter (see “Dissident Ai Weiwei rejoins the twitterati”, The Independent, 8 August 2011 and “China activist Ai Weiwei felt ‘close to death’ during secret detention”, MSNBC.com, 11 August 2011). Alas, the 7th of August seems to have been his last tweet. Flurries of activity, followed by prolonged silence are characteristic of his situation. In the meantime we have these writings.