The graffiti appeared on a construction barrier in May. It met with none of the intensity of interest that the summer's big international street-artistry event would. Of course it was not done by the artist himself: It was the stenciled bearded visage of the artist Ai Weiwei with the caption, in stencil and dripping freehand, "Where is my passport?"
Ai Weiwei is now in his third year of what has become a loose but thorough captivity, in the hands of the Chinese government. In April of 2011, he was arrested at the airport and disappeared into China's detention system for nearly 12 weeks, ostensibly for "economic crimes," before being released, levied huge fines for alleged tax evasion, and barred from international travel.
By 2013 it was all kind of an old story. In February, the New Republic's Jed Perl condescended to review him as an art celebrity who needed to be taken down a peg—"Wonderful dissident, terrible artist," in the headline formulation. But one of Ai's great gifts is an ability to provoke interesting responses from blockheaded reactionaries, and what was interesting about Perl's piece was that it was not just vaguely glib and stupid, but quite precisely the opposite of correct. As a dissident, or at least as an idealized and internationally embraced dissident, Ai merits skepticism. As an artist, he is heroic and fascinating.
That is, Ai's political dissidence is flat and obvious. He insists that cooperation with the People's Republic of China is impossible, that there is no room for an artist or intellectual to criticize contemporary China other than through full-on opposition. This can be read, from outside, as pandering or bullying. There are Chinese people who can and do work through indirection and implication to reveal the wrongness of the system.
Yet even in this regard, the fact remains that Ai's mouth writes no checks that his ass has not already cashed in the funds to cover. He has tried being a sly and puckish critic of the Chinese state, and slyness did not stop him from being beaten and locked away, or his property from being bulldozed. From the jaded Western-cosmopolitan point of view, it is oddly easy to overlook the fact that he cannot fly over here and sit down and have a jaded Western-cosmopolitan conversation with us, because some nasty and narrow-minded and unsophisticated goons have taken away his right to travel. It is a funny thing to take a person to task for his global celebrity when he is not actually allowed to pass through an airport.
Still, there was Perl, arguing for instance that Ai's marble sculpture of a surveillance camera was
notable mostly as an example of made-to-order ironic neoclassicism, and for all intents and purposes it is indistinguishable from the marble rendering of a garbage can by the New York bad boy artist Tom Sachs.
For all intents? And purposes? Jed Perl, the art critic of the New Republic, perceived no possible conceptual difference between an artist who sculpted a trash can in marble as a joke and an artist who is under constant government surveillance (and threat of arrest) deciding to make a marble reproduction of one of the actual surveillance cameras that have been installed outside his home to monitor his life. (Perhaps Perl was not familiar with any traditional symbolic associations between classical or neoclassical marble sculpture and authority?)
The difference between the two sculptures is the difference between conceptual art about the concepts found in art galleries and conceptual art made in a world where the struggle over concepts is a matter of life and death. The conditions under which Ai Weiwei does his work have become not just the essential context for his art but his artistic medium itself.
Perl sneered at the phonies and dupes who won't "question whether a list of names or an MRI of a swollen brain counts as a work of art." Ai compiled the list of names after the Chinese government had failed to produce a public accounting of casualties of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, when children had suffered mass deaths in corruptly constructed school buildings. It would have been mundane record-keeping if the government had done it, but the government's inaction made it something else. The MRI was a document of the injury Ai received when he was beaten by local police while he worked on compiling the list.
To ask whether the documentary components of the project belong individually in a museum is to miss every salient point about the form and the stakes of Ai's work. What Ai has demonstrated, over and over again, is the ability to produce open-ended effects and cascades of meaning. In "Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads," he replicated a set of 18th century bronzes that were looted from the imperial Summer Palace by Western forces in the 19th century—a loss that remains a Chinese national grievance—and sent the copies on an exhibition tour of the contemporary Western art world. As if the accumulated layers of historic exploitation and appropriation weren't enough, by the time Ai's bronzes got going on their journey, the artist himself was locked up and unable to join them.
The ironies and contradictions go far beyond the power relations between one person and the state that oppresses him. In 2010, he installed 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, each one hand-painted by Chinese artisans. The theory had been that people would wade through the results of this immense human effort—but disturbing the seeds raised what London deemed an unsafe amount of dust, so visitors had to view them passively, from a distance.
Ai understands how to use the international apparatus of publicity: This year, he released what he called a "heavy metal" album, which was not particularly enjoyable as music, with a video that was a largely literal re-creation of his detention, and he shipped off lifelike fiberglass dioramas of his jailing to be exhibited in Venice. If they were not subtle, they did make the newspapers, which were as eager to report on the representations of his imprisonment as they had been impotent to report on the conditions of his imprisonment while it had been happening.
But he also sent Toronto 3,144 bicycles, assembled into a repeating, immersive installation. The bicycle symbolizes many things about modern China, so the choice of materials almost certainly had nothing to do with the fact that Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, had declared that roads are "for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes," or that it was cyclists' "own fault" if they got hurt on the roads. Nor could Ai have predicted that 2013 would be the year in which that democratically elected mayor would be revealed to be a degenerate and violent thug, spiritually akin to the brutal local officials scattered across China.
The art resonates around the world because Ai has refused to accept or capitulate to a divided existence. He is a citizen of the contemporary world—educated in the New York art scene and at the blackjack tables of Atlantic City—who is also a citizen of a particular authoritarian circumstance. Maybe you could get tired of seeing his caricature spray-painted around downtown. He can't see it there himself, though.
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