Weiwei’s latest piece of performance art marks a shift in his relationship with the West, Chetna Prakash explains.
Ai Weiwei is in the news again. Only this time, it is not for criticising the Chinese government; instead, turning his focus westward, to critique the European countries for their policies toward Syrian refugees.
In January, when the Danish government ruled in favour of seizing the assets of asylum seekers (mostly Syrian refugees) to pay for their resettlement, he closed down an ongoing exhibition in Copenhagen in protest. A week later, he posed on a Greek beach in reference to the drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi:
As is common with Weiwei, the image quickly went viral on social media.
The photo marks a big shift in the life of Weiwei, an artist most known for his outspoken criticism of the communist government of China. Last August, he moved to Berlin with his family after more than 20 years in Beijing. The image marks his first strong political statement against his new home, and with it, shifts his somewhat cosy relationship with the West. He is on to us, and we are on to him.
His relocation to Berlin follows the sudden return of his passport by the Chinese government after four years. The seizing of the passport was just one aspect of his ordeal, which began in 2011 with his imprisonment for 81 days, followed by house arrest and constant surveillance. Ostensibly, his imprisonment was for tax evasions by his company. However, most people believe it was in response to his outspoken and brazen criticisms of human rights violations by the Chinese government.
The relocation was bound to reflect in his art and rejig his relationship with his biggest fan, the Western world.
Weiwei’s career as an artist really took off in 1992, when he returned to China after 12 years in New York. The current exhibition of Weiwei and Warhol’s works at the National Gallery of Victoria dedicates an entire gallery to his time in New York. He mostly spent it pottering about, learning, absorbing and experimenting rather than creating works of art. He dabbled with conceptual art, took endless photographs and participated in every form of political protest doing the rounds in New York, but there was no clear purpose to his creative output.
It was only after he returned to China to be with his ailing father that his art came into sharp focus, throwing light onto the heavy handedness of the Chinese government. His artistic superstardom started in 2006 when he took to social media and started incorporating ordinary people into his art. In the previous articles in this series, I have discussed how he has cleverly used art to criticise the Chinese government and build a community of dissidents in China (Read them here, here and here).
What I have not talked about before is the intense black and white nature of his work, and how easy it has been for us, as a Western audience, to cheer him on.
Weiwei has famously said: “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.” Readymade is an artistic reference to the use of ordinary, pre-manufactured objects in art. The artistic merit lies in presenting such an object in a context where a whole range of new meanings can be ascribed. As discussed before, for Warhol, the readymades were Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo packing boxes, film and advertising posters, newspaper clippings etc. Instead of creating new imagery, he picked these pre-existing images from the American landscape and reformatted them for our viewing, lending them new meanings in the process.
For Weiwei, the readymade has been the abuses of the Chinese government. His art has mainly involved bringing them to the attention of the world. Whether that is the plight of school children killed in an earthquake, or of human rights activists from around China, or his own harassment over the last 10 years at the hands of the government – Weiwei has turned all these instances into an opportunity to intensify the debate on China’s totalitarian regime. Some of his artworks are as literal as Brain Inflation (2009), an MRI scan of his brain after a cerebral haemorrhage, the result of an assault by a Chinese police officer. Some have argued that this literalness and simplicity mirrors the literalness of the Chinese state propaganda. It is both derives from, and is a criticism of, the simplistic state propaganda that makes Weiwei’s world.
However, that still leaves our response to his art under scrutiny. Most of us have little understanding of the complexity of life in China. We largely view its economic domination and shadowy government with suspicion. Is our love for Weiwei based on the relatively easy-to-grasp narrative he presents of life in China – with easily identifiable villains and victims – which confirms our pre-existing suspicions? Do we support him because doing so makes us feel good about ourselves at no real cost?
Many other Chinese artists, particularly the younger ones, feel burdened by an expectation that their art should criticise the Chinese regime. In a New Yorker article, multimedia Chinese artist Wang Jianwei, stated that although he was aware of China’s flaws, he refused to make political work in order to flatter the biases of Westerners. Both the state and its critics in the media (including Ai Weiwei) are “simple and crude and dictatorial,” he said. “We hate dictatorship, whatever form it takes.” It is worth noting that this younger crop of Chinese artists grew-up in the post-Cultural revolution, during an era of China’s economic ascension.
Till now, Weiwei has rarely commented on the political happenings in the West. An artwork he gifted to the NGV for his current show is a life-size Lego-block temple called LetGo Room (2015) which features 20 Australians who are advocates of human rights and freedom of speech. The list of featured Australians, which includes government officials, celebrated activists and academics, is stunning in its tameness. The fact that Julian Assange is the most controversial name in that list highlights its predictability.
It is interesting that Ai’s latest stunt – of posing as the dead Syrian refugee child – has met with a mixed reception. The Spectator in the UK called it “crude, thoughtless and egotistical.” An article by Al Jazeera called it “his greatest work of suicidal art.” The Guardian called it bad art, and ironically pointed out his inconsistency in closing down the exhibition in Denmark but not in Australia, which not only seizes refugees’ assets but also locks them up on an island indefinitely.
The general verdict is if Ai Weiwei wants us to question ourselves, he will have to do better than to rehash an already heavily debated and circulated viral image. In other words, it is game on.
Weiwei’s works are on show at an exhibition “Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei” at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 24.