I might be the only person I know who doesn’t think Ai Weiwei is much of an artist. As a social commentator, he is certainly fearless and important, and as an agent for social change in today’s complicated Chinese landscape, he is unique. But as an artist? Meh. Weiwei’s actual work seems almost incidental to the message he wants to convey. It’s not clear to me, in other words, why his reputation is mainly that of an artist, when it’s as an agent of social change that he seems most important—both within China and outside of it.
For his own part, Weiwei describes himself less as an artist and more as a chess player: “My opponent makes a move, I make a move. Now I’m waiting for my opponent’s next move.” This raises questions about the role of art and the artist. Isn’t there an element of art that comes from within the person creating it? If not, then art is purely a response to the external environment, and has little or nothing to do with the artist who creates it, who is simply responding to outside forces. This seems odd to me. Picasso and Miro, Michaelangelo and Hiroshige—were they all merely responding to what was around them, or was their work partly an expression of something uniquely within themselves?
Obviously, the environment in which the artist is placed is very important—Hiroshige would not have made the same work had he grown up in 19th-century Spain. And yet, it seems an overstatement to say that his transcendent watercolors are purely a result of his surroundings. Surely there is an element of the man himself that is expressed in the work? And surely that element is a significant part of the art?
Such questions come to mind when listening to Weiwei discuss his work. Then there is his practice of not actually being the physical artist in crafting many of his works; he is just the idea guy, so to speak. Other people do the actual carving and assembling and painting. But is an artist an artist if he doesn’t make art? Is it enough simply to conceptualize pieces without actually being the person who puts them together? If so, then I am a terrific artist—in my head. Weiwei might well agree with that statement. I do not.
In China, Weiwei is seen as more of a provocateur; his art objects are simple and unschooled, for example a photograph of Tianemen Square with the photographer’s upraised middle finger inserted into the shot. (Title: “A Study in Perspective”.) It’s clever and provocative, but it requires nothing that could be termed artistic ability or vision. It could be made by literally anyone with a camera and a free hand. Does it have value as a piece of art or is it simply a snappy bit of commentary? Is there a difference? Is it “elitist” to be even talking about things like artistic talent or ability? This documentary forces us to confront these questions.
Significantly, Weiwei is much more applauded outside China than inside. Perhaps this is because his attacks on governmental policy make him unwelcome in his him country. Perhaps it’s because those same attacks make him a cause célebre outside of it. Perhaps it’s because his artworks and installations, which seem to be growing larger and more elaborate over time, carry the kind of heft that is favored by big museums in London and Madrid and Rio. But all of his gushing fans talk about his work in terms of its message rather than its beauty or emotional power. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe that beauty (or its deliberate absence) and emotional power are two useful yardsticks in considering the value of a piece of art.
In his work with Sichuan earthquake victims—victims whose deaths were ignored or denied by the Chinese government—Ai Weiwei reveals himself to be an important commentator and social critic. Using social media platforms such as blogs and Twitter, he relentlessly hounded the government while unearthing information about schoolchildren who died in the event. But agin, his art projects are conceptual more than anything else. One notable piece consists of a list of student victims, complete with birth dates and schools attended, that was painstaking collected over the course of many months. It’s an undeniably powerful piece, but again, one that could have been produced with anybody with a computer and printer. This is not to impugn the significance of the work, which is considerable, but it does raise questions concerning the where to place the lines dividing art, activism, and social commentary—or whether those lines need to be placed at all.
If they are not, though, then what’s the point of calling oneself an artist? What is the value in claiming something that literally anyone can be, or do?
The documentary focuses a great deal of Weiwei’s activism and run-ins with the Chinese government, while also providing considerable biographical information. Numerous art critics, both western and Chinese, provide context that proves useful to viewers who, like me, might not be aware of current trends in contemporary art.
The blu-ray picture is of course crisp, the sound clear and the subtitles useful without being intrusive. A number of special features round out the main feature, including a director’s commentary, more than a dozen deleted scenes, and a number of additional interviews, including some interesting insights from Weiwei’s mother and younger brother, Ai Dan.
Given its fascinating subject matter, this DVD is compulsively watchable, and will be of interest to anyone with an interest in contemporary art or, more significantly, contemporary Chinese politics. It’s certainly thought-provoking, even as it makes certain significant but by no means universally accepted assumptions about the nature of art and artists.