May 12, 2011


Fire and Ice: Ai Weiwei’s cutting edge art, blogging, and sacrifice on behalf of freedom in China. (Jed Perl, May 11, 2011, New Republic)

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is a very brave man. Long before April 3, when he was taken into police custody by the Chinese authorities in Beijing as he attempted to board a flight for Hong Kong, he knew that his vigorous support for human rights in China put him on a collision course with the government. He was badly beaten by the police in 2009, his blog was shut down that same year, and in 2010 his new studio in Shanghai was bulldozed by authorities. True, Ai may have imagined that his immense prestige in the international art world—he is regarded as the Chinese answer to Joseph Beuys, a post-Duchampian shaman with an Asian spin—would have provided him some protection. And for a time it did. But Ai, who as a child during the Cultural Revolution saw his own father, Ai Qing, a famous poet, sent to western Xinjiang province, China’s “little Siberia,” where he was given the lowliest of jobs scrubbing toilets, cannot have been unaware of the risks he was running as he protested the policies of China’s totalitarian regime. The new China, much like Stalin’s Russia, only plays the cultural diplomacy card so long as it works to its own advantage. Even the country’s most celebrated artistic spirit—Ai collaborated with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—can be sent to prison, just like any other citizen of the police state.

Ai is a fire and ice personality. The ice is in the impossibly self-confident impresario who has become a hero of the global art world with his sometimes elegant, sometimes arrogant, sometimes frankly obnoxious appropriations and deconstructions of China’s cultural heritage. His best known works include: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), a set of three photographs showing Ai as he shatters the ancient artifact; Template (2007), a construction made of 1001 wooden doors and windows from demolished Ming and Qing Dynasty homes; and Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, currently on display in New York in front of the Plaza Hotel, which consists of bronze replicas or reconstructions of heads designed by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong. The fire—which you find on nearly every page of a new book of Ai’s writings, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (The MIT Press)—is in his critique of contemporary China and the political stands he has taken in the past half-dozen years, including his outspoken support for parents whose children were killed when shoddily constructed schools collapsed during the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. If the work that has earned Ai an international following reflects the taste for chilly ironies that dominated the New York art world during his time in the city between 1981 and 1995, his experiences in China have turned this swaggering art world insider into an enraged social outsider.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 is the work of a large, restless, impassioned imagination. His writing here has some of the speculative reach we know from William Morris’s critiques of Victorian England and Donald Judd’s indictments of contemporary art world corruption. Like Morris and Judd, Ai keeps pivoting toward the bigger insight, the broader perspective. He is not a great writer, he may not even be a good writer, but there’s heroism in this voice. When Ai speaks about modernism in a 2006 blog, the word regains a vitality it has pretty much lost in the West. “China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude,” he writes, “for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists.” Who in the United States or Western Europe dares to say things like this anymore?

W, for one. Though he better understands that the basis for the movement is Christianity.

Posted by at May 12, 2011 7:10 AM

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