Quite by accident it would appear that two major strands of this blog have intersected: 8 days ago Ai Weiwei was on his way to attend the Liu Xiaobo Nobel Awards ceremony when he was detained at the Beijing airport. As usual, his film crew was on hand to record this EVENT, a fact which obviously suggests that he fully expected what was waiting for him at the airport before he headed out the door. This does not detract from the political theatre of the event. Indeed, looking also back at Ai’s August 12, 2010 attempt to confront the police who viciously beat him a year previously (video HERE), we see something of a consistent pattern developing: deliberate drawing out of representatives of state apparatus with careful (often undetected) placement of a lens to record them engaging in pointless acts of oppression. These clips then become the platform for Ai’s observations of how misguided government policy really is, often on English-language news broadcasts.
Last week’s video, however, is certainly not top-of-the-line political theatre. In fact, its vapid on so many levels, from the entirely clueless response of the airport official (who only observes “you’re not allowed” to film here—a prohibition common to most airports) to the actually quite polite and equally non-threatening denial of passage that we hear—and only hear—Ai subjected to later in the clip. In fact, the woman who tells Ai that he cannot travel probably has no idea who he is. Clearly, at least, she doesn’t much believe that that allowing him to go will “harm national security” (the video’s title, by the way).
In any event, and on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist. Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China. Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist. Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency. I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency. This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works. In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.
Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se. He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.