Ai Weiwei, Time Magazine, sculpture, detention, and an imaginative exercise of my own

Ai Weiwei is back in the public eye, now more ponderous than ever. Namely, he’s provided sculptural view of his 80+ day detention in 2011, and they are on display at Venice Biennale under the title SACRED.

Unknown-2 images Unknown-1 Unknown 676x380

Which brings me to an imaginative exercise, brought about only slightly facetiously by voluminous and similarly placed facial hair. What of our own instances of unlawful detention? Would a mock-ups, beard and all, of Abdullah al-Kidd being interrogated by CIA officials do well as art in Venice? (al-Kidd was detained for 16 days in 2003 for attempting to fly to Saudi Arabia.) If the art was well done, I suppose, it might be picked up by some adventurous curator for global art events like the one now in Italy. But, would NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian cover them as they have Ai Weiwei’s exhibit?  Obviously not. Part of the reason for that is of course that al-Kidd is not himself an artist, and therefore not eligible for artist as hero against ‘The Man’ narratives that we so readily go in for. The other reason is that al-Kidd was presumed to be a terrorist, and that just does not seem a topic worthy of reporting. Which of these two reasons is more important here I can’t say. Maybe they come out about equal.

Lee Gelernt, Abdullah al-Kidd

Which brings me to Time Magazine. Last week featured a cover by Ai himself, and a report on contemporary China by Hannah Beech.



The consequences of China reclaiming its “rightful place” are far-reaching—a world driven by a Chinese consumer class, rather than an American one, would be already a very different place. But Beech charts the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower: its toxic environment, its awkward relations with wary neighbors, the iron-bound determination of Xi’s Communist Party to keep a stranglehold on power despite the growing frustrations of its restive population. China views itself as the Middle Kingdom, imbued with the mandate of 5,000 years of glorious history. But the rest of the world still sees a “foreign policy laggard,” preoccupied more by its insecurities than its strengths.

Read more:

Ai’s image thereby accompanies a narrative of China’s rise coupled with the important exercise of putting China in its place. This concerted effort requires not only all the major media to partake, but just as importantly, a legitimate, dependable, valiant, brave, native, figure like Ai Weiwei to drive it all home. It must issue from numerous places at once (Time, London, Venice, etc), and fully interweave text and image, politics and culture, without ever disrupting the dominant view: China is rising, BUT…

art documentaries : Chimeras in the mix

Another year another China art documentary, focusing on questions of identity, or, as Wang Guangyi asks in Finnish film director  Mika Mattila’s Chimera: “what are our roots?”

The question itself continues to inspire new documentary work, but not, perhaps, much discussion or even interest (at least not for me). I remain intrigued, however, by filmmakers who are able to take this topic as the subject of their art, in other words, film artists who make art the fodder for their art. The arrangement is curious in that so much of what is compelling about such work is derived, if not flat out stolen, from someone else’s creative work. Where would, in other words, Mattila really be without Wang Guangyi and Liu Gang, who in most media reports (LA Times, for instance) are the headliners anyway, with the ‘real’ artist–the filmmaker–relegated to round about paragraph three. Journalists can see proportionality in this case of creative production, anyway.

The question is somewhat personal, I suppose, as I’ve endeavored off and on to tackle Zhong Biao in documentary format. Whether or not the project ever comes to fruition, I am certain that the better part of what emerges as watchable (耐看) will stem from his painting, or other products from his fundamentally creative hand. The structure, rhetoric, even cinematographic dimensions of my work would all rightly be upstaged by the artist or artists in question.

Robert Adanto’s work, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is also a case in point, but in watching that work we are forced to admit a certain spectrum of truth to the proposition that the documentarian of art is a thief of sorts, particularly when compared with Alison Klayman’s work on Ai Weiwei, a more modest, and therefore artistically thin operation. Yet in either case there is something there, in the art of the art, something beyond mere convenience (documentarian travels to locales we cannot in order to bring back the goods of what’s good), something expressive and individual, self-deprecating by design, but occasionally aesthetically there in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

And so it will be with Chimeras, I expect. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes to town.

Cultural un-development in China

Quick quiz:

The following quote from the NBC WorldBlog:

“Whenever I get back to New York, I’m in middle earth, and when I’m in Europe I feel like I’m in a museum. And here it feels like the right pulse of time.”

Question: where’s the “here” here?

对了。Its Beijing. Granted, the year is 2009, when the Beijing Olympics were still bouncing about the echo chambers of very recent memory banks. I’m often given to wondering since about how Beijing/New York (or Paris or…) is doing in that comparison. Recent reports like this one in Chinarealtimereport, suggest that its not going so well, at least if we take Beijing 798 as something of a center of potential for cultural development. That phrase is at least 1/2 in effect, which is to say the Chinese government is about to “develop” another 50 billion yuan into 798, a place not want for capital investment, as far as I can tell. What it has been lacking in many people’s estimate in recent years is something genuine amidst the rapidly spreading shlock of unscrupulous consumerism. Indeed, a development from consumerism with scruples to the worst of the laissez faire (which is to say massively engineered top down extravaganza that this bit of “cultural” investment appears to be) is precisely what will destroy the “cultural” part of the comparison with New York or any other vibrant urban center the world over.

This development (in able hands of Melco International Development Ltd) has generated more controversy than usual, however, partly because consciousness of the use of resources both financial and natural (water) has risen considerably, and China’s burgeoning internet community–which so far China’s government has not figured out how to ‘develop’ –is very apt at expressing that consciousness in microblogs. Not to say that the push-back will necessarily stop to project. Chances are it won’t. But we could be optimistic and believe that developers and officials alike will finds ways to be guided by wisdom found in voluminous weibo postings.

Its also a moment when I for one would like to pause and note the importance of the voice of Ai Weiwei, of whose antics I’m occasionally critical, but whose basic critique of Chinese government policy where culture is concerned is more or less spot-on. We could perhaps take the positive view that Ai and others will become more central to decision making in the cultural sphere going forward. At the moment, I can’t quite be that positive.

New Republic Review of Ai Weiwei–the discussion ensues

Below is an exchange of views posted to Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, a listserv managed by Kirk Denton at Ohio State University. The subject was  Noble and Ignoble  : Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist  by Jed Perl. The original article is here

My own opinion below, and following the other posts to the list:

What has long intrigued me about Ai as provocateur, which I think is the best way to see his work either as artist or as dissident, is that he seems genuinely fearless. The clear examples are his constant challenges to Beijing (among other) authorities, whether they derive from be art-related, politically-motivated, or, more commonly, perfectly blended activities. The less obvious examples, though, are often more interesting, as with the 2010 interview with CNN ( wherein Ai proclaims (in English) that China has no philosophy, and no humanity. On that occasion I found myself wondering if he might not actually be mocking his interviewer. After all, he can’t really mean that, right?

Regardless, I was pleased with Perl’s review, mostly because I’d yet to see a single critical word about Ai in English-language press, and this fit that bill and then some. Strangely, this also provokes a somewhat defensive response from those of us in the field, myself included, who are quick to point out that Ai’s artistic work in China remains clearly more relevant than derivative. Obviously, the very idea that his work is derivative begins in an historically informed and global context, where his status (“influence”) as artist withers in the face of his heroic, even cinematic stand against the faceless regime. And of course, as Lucas observes, to get into the particulars of the dissent is more than most readers of the New York Times, Guardian, or CNN, are willing to do. But the media game is where, again, I think Ai has been concentrating his efforts since at least 2008, when the Olympics gave him direct access to a global platform. Indeed, this inclination to celebrity goes back to the days in New York, when he and many who now populate the contemporary Chinese cultural elite (image of Feng Xiaogang sitting on top of a taxi cab comes to mind) were dreaming up their somewhat impossible futures.

So my issue with Perl’s review perhaps comes down to the phrase “pleads his case in art museums.” I wonder, in fact, if that’s actually Ai pleading, or is it instead some battery of curators and art directors, who are perhaps better targets for Perl’s critique than a contemporary Chinese artist making his way, albeit willingly, in a veritable mine field of political and aesthetic explosives day after day. What Ai actually cares about is not Perl (or us), but the people who surround him, and this is perhaps the best thing that can be said about him.

The first response came from Lucas Klein.

From: Lucas Klein <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissent, terrible artist (1)

Jed Perl writes: “once upon a time Tatlin, Malevich, and El Lissitzky
imagined that they might unite radical art and radical politics.” In the
circles of American poetry I travel in, The New Republic is known to match
liberal politics with conservative aesthetics (in the same circles, those
liberal politics are often themselves seen as pretty conservative). I
haven’t paid much attention to its art criticism, but this piece by Jed
Perl (who himself is known as rather stodgy in his tastes) demonstrates
that the same may be true in visual art, too.

Here’s an example of Perl’s art historical conservatism: “If the scale of
a work and the way the work is produced are irrelevant to its meaning or
its content, then what on earth is a work of art? Isn’t a work of art by
its very nature a matter of particulars, of size and scale, of who does
what and how?” This seems like a question he might have wanted to ask Sol
Lewitt or other conceptual artists forty or fifty years ago. There’s
always the question, Would Ai Weiwei be so famous if not for his stance
against the Chinese Communist Party? But the flip-side of that is, Would
Ai Weiwei’s identity as an artist be criticized, undermined, or
second-guessed if he weren’t Chinese?

I’m not suggesting that political virtue and artistic value are the same
(I’ve posted reviews to this list specifically stating that they’re not).
But here’s how it works: Art Review magazine listed him as the most
influential person in the art world in 2011
world/). Maybe you think he’s influential for his politics rather than for
his art, but then again, I can think of no other Chinese person who has
ever been considered most influential in the world in his or her métier
while alive; Mo Yan, Gao Xingjian, Bei Dao, Lu Xun, and Li Bai have never
been considered the most influential writers in the world, and hey,
Chairman Mao wasn’t even the most influential Communist in the world! For
some, what’s influential about Ai Weiwei’s art is that he does not want to
define his artwork only by what can be easily put on display, but rather
that his life (also on display for more reasons than one) is his artwork.

This doesn’t mean everything he does is good. I certainly don’t respond to
all his work (the appeals to the government from many mothers following
the Wenchuan earthquake, framed and hung on the wall at the Hong Kong
International Art Fair, where I saw it last May, did not move me
aesthetically, and I found his Gangnam video stupid and indulgent), but my
own take is, actually, that Ai Weiwei is a much more interesting artist
than he is a dissident. I haven’t read all his tweets or collected
writings, or even seen Never Sorry (so this is limited; please write in if
you think my judgment is hasty), but my sense is that as a political
thinker he’s a one-trick pony, saying no more or less than the Party is
bad. I have seen no systematic analysis or developed perspective, but
rather sometimes who will attack from left or right depending on what he
thinks the problem is. That’s fine, but I don’t think it makes a
compelling dissident (Liu Xiaobo, on the other hand, whom I certainly
don’t agree with all the time, has a consistent Liberal standpoint; a more
developed perspective gives him more range as a dissident). In Ai Weiwei’s
artworks, however, I see him engaging much more fully with the depth and
breadth of the Chinese cultural and political identity, and what that
means for, as John Berger put it (quoted in Perl’s piece), the “style he
inherits, the conventions he must obey, [and] his prescribed or freely
chosen subject matter.” I don’t think he can articulate his aesthetics
very well (many artists cannot), but even in the poorly lit, undersized
images of his sculptures on the New Republic webpage (as if consciously
laid out to appear diminutive), I see craft and concept combined in ways I
find not only interesting and intriguing, but beautiful.


Following are numerous others writing to the list.

From: Stanley Seiden <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (2)

I think I disagree with both Messrs Perl and Klein.  Or to speak more
positively, I agree with Perl’s assessment of Ai’s dissidence and Klein’s
with his art.

With little artistic background, I feel far less qualified to comment on
Mr. Ai’s artistic work, but as an enjoyer of art I’ve never found Ai’s
work to strike any fewer aesthetic chords in me than the oeuvre others.
The history of artwork as revisualizations of every day objects is far
older than Ai (see Duchamp’s urinal and Creed’s balls of paper).  What’s
more, the mere fact of one viewer’s indifference to a piece of artwork
(such as Perl’s bafflement at Cube Light) does not diminish its impact to
others.  Ai’s animal heads may be devoid of deeper meaning than a
presentation of Chinese cultural icons, but I question Perl’s seeming
renunciation of, say, the entire Pop Art movement, which was built on
nothing but stark portrayal of cultural icons.  It is hard to have
patience for a critic who would allow a conversation of art without Mickey
Mouse (or 生肖鼠, I suppose).

As for the dissidence of Ai, I highly recommend watching Never Sorry for
its detailed portrayal of the shape and form of Ai’s work to criticize the
government.  I say “work” because it is a laborious project.  Ai doesn’t
just post the picture of his brainscan on museum walls (which both Perl
and Klein object to on different merits); he makes numerous trips to
Chengdu, files all his paperwork, and documents the entire process.  The
message I took from Never Sorry, or at least from what it depicted of Ai’s
process, was that it’s never enough to simply denounce the Party as “bad.”
Ai has taken it upon himself to play out the system, follow the threads
to their end, and hold everyone (including himself) accountable for their

I think separating Ai’s artwork from his dissidence (and I don’t really
like splitting his public image into those two boxes in the first place;
there is more to Ai’s promotion of good governance in China than simply
opposition to government policy) is also somewhat self-defeating.  His art
is a form of dissidence; his dissidence emerges as art.  Ai Weiwei is a
man who deeply loves his country and seeks to improve the government
therein, and much of his artwork is documentation of this passion and
pursuit.  Pollack threw paint against a canvas; Ai is throwing himself
against the similarly blank, expressionless expanse of the Chinese
government, in numerous shades and from numerous angles, and then leaves
us to see the marks that are left.  I am a cynical art student, and I
agree with Perl that a list of names typed on paper, on its own, is
largely absent of artistic merit.  But when I read that list, I am moved
by something much more potent than oils and charcoal.  Ai is not going to
win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon, but he has taught Americans (and
the world) far more about China than Liu Xiaobo or Tan Zuoren.  That, too,
is a power of art: to rush in where dissidents aren’t allowed to tread.

Ai is an artist; these are his works.  They have the power to stir us
emotionally, even if we don’t understand every installation.  Why
shouldn’t we put them in our museums?



From: Kristin E Stapleton <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (3)

Dear all,

I agree with a lot of what Lucas Klein wrote in his response to the Perl
review of Ai Weiwei.  Speaking without any credentials as an art critic (I
did forward the review to my colleagues in Visual Studies here in Buffalo
for their thoughts but have not heard back yet), but having seen the
Hirshhorn exhibition and the documentary, I think Ai Weiwei’s work is
trying to deal with Chinese history and the contemporary world in a
variety of interesting ways.  Maybe it is the eclecticism that Perl
objects to? That light cube was not all that moving to me, either, but it
certainly immediately called to mind the total glitz attack of 1990s
Chinese commercial spaces.  The map of China made out of wood reclaimed
from demolished historical buildings is pretty breathtaking, on the other

As for Ai as a “one-trick pony” political activist, I think it’s true that
in politics he is not as eclectic as in his art-making — the ability to
share ones thoughts on any subject with whomever one wants and have free
access to public information that should legally be available are what he
asks for in almost all of his “performance art.”  That’s not a bad one
note for a one-trick pony to hold to, it seems to me, at this point in
history. (His broader approach to the question of the “legacy of Chinese
culture,” explored by destroying ancient artifacts, etc., is also
political, but in a broader context of cultural politics). The Gangnam
thing may be silly, but being silly is not a particular heinous offense
(at least, I certainly hope not!) and perhaps it only became publicly
known because he has decided that it’s better to just make his whole life
public than restrict it to his immediate circle and the public security

By the way, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery bought a couple of pieces from
the “Moon Chest” installation, which will come here after the exhibition
finishes its tour.

Best wishes,


From: Sean Macdonald <[email protected]>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (4)

I read a review like Perl’s with a large grain of salt.

Different forms of contemporary art have trajectories within their
respective historical contexts. Any work or production that merits serious
consideration deserves to be criticized in the context of other works and
their institutions. Although Perl doesn’t seem to be a very nuanced art
critic, I find his comments to the originality, or lack of originality in
Ai’s work, interesting.

Perl seems to want to simply criticize Ai’s production as derivative
because Perl is anchoring Ai’s aesthetic in Western neo or contemporary
avant-garde work, work that does play with ideas of originality and mass
production. Perl has a point here. But Ai also grounds the content of his
work in contemporary PRC politics and society. Perl also seems to
understand that Ai is not the first contemporary artist to articulate
explicit political messages. Perl just doesn’t like Ai’s “messaging.”

The idea of bringing John Berger into a discussion about a contemporary
artist like Ai is also interesting, but maybe this is where Perl doesn’t
get it. For example, extrapolating from Berger, Perl claims Ai’s work
lacks “sense of the means as constituting an opportunity and a restraint.”
And what if the artist’s “lack of restraint” is precisely the point? What
if this “lack of restraint” is a kind of reply to a context (political,
social, and institutional) that still (from the point of view of the
artist) exerts too much restraint?

In the end, it is possible that neither Perl nor Ai are “conservative” or

All the best,


Back from China, ON-OFF


Just back from a few weeks in China where I was well protected from the dangerous platforms such as WordPress and the like. Just checking back in now with Facebook and other friends, and taking note of Evan Osnos recent piece in the New Yorker. Osnos, arguably one of the most persuasive talking heads in the Klayman documentary about Ai Weiwei, is also increasingly one of the most credible voices about contemporary China on a wide array of subjects. Particularly pleased, then, that he’s paying attention to contemporary art.

The context for Osnos’ piece is the new opening at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. The exhibition (curated by Bao Dong 鲍栋 and Song Dong 孙冬冬) is a major event in its own right, with 50 commissioned works by 50 artists or artists groups, members all born after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As to the Apple performance discussed in Osnos’ piece, it seems to me a continuation of pervious work done by contemporary Chinese artists, but a continuation of a subject that needs to be continued. I have in mind a couple of pieces by Ai Weiwei, but principally the Tate  sunflower seeds that follows a similar thread, although it does so much more obliquely.  Ai is commenting on labor in China, with hands so cheap he could commission the creation of virtually countless hand-crafted porcelain seeds. (Tate purchased only 8 million of them–there were more). Of course, Ai’s piece is about much more than mere labor, with a very wide metaphorical scope  encompassing China as symbol, but the implications of  contemporary art object as concrete commodity are there.  In this case, though, Li Liao 李燎 goes for broke, exhibiting the mechanics of contemporary global capitalism in China from source to destination. He does so by actually getting a job at FOXCON and making the iPads, etc. himself, then exhibiting them in a place where most of the consumers of art are carrying such devices in their pockets anyway.  As Osnos describes:

I watched two young men separately linger over it for very different reasons: one was a hip Chinese gallerygoer in chunky glasses and a camel-hair coat, taking it all in; the other was a gallery security guard in a borrowed suit and white gloves. He was studying the details of the contract.

This is performance art at its best, and the type that China will need more of to keep the scene fresh in the years to come. As that develops, I for one hope Evan will keep reporting what transpires. 


Ai Weiwei continues the charge

Actually, its the government’s charge, and the “crime” is a little on the vague side (tax evasion), but Ai Weiwei has now finally declared refusal to pay. Now comes the uncomfortable part of finding out what happens as a consequence. Ai’s point, which he has managed to express repeatedly over the course of the prosecution of his case, is that there is no real functioning legal system in China, just a serious of arbitrary measures leading up to foregone conclusions. This may be so, but the police force is certainly in effect. Again, let’s hope this comes out well.

Meanwhile, of course, and while without a passport he’s unable to move about, he’s anything but shut out of global art proceedings. As his Twitterfeed photo a few hours ago, here connected via video link with Taiwan Biennale



Jeffry Wasserstrom and Jonathan Campbell in conversation about Pussy Riot, Ai Weiwei, dissent

An interesting interview appears in Los Angeles Review of Books website.

I am particularly impressed by Campbell’s opening point about social responsibility and art:

JONATHAN CAMPBELL: I think that what unites Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot, and some of China’s most interesting and noteworthy rockers is that socialist legacy of the responsibility of artists to be examples to society, to use their art to make a difference.

This perspective is the type which is missing from many a discussion of Ai Weiwei and other figures who challenge authority in Chinese context. This omission is particularly unfortunate, because in the absence of such a sense of responsibility, what remains, in Ai Weiwei’s case, is something of a political opportunist, one who knows how to work media to advantage of fame (and, though not often acknowledged, fortune). I do believe that Ai rises above that opportunism, but he does so in the context of Chinese cultural assumptions about what an artist (or intellectual) can and should be.