Ai Wei Wei – China’s Conscience

One of the interesting things about the Andy Warhol exhibition that I attended was that they combined it with the art of a more contemporary artist – Ai Wei Wei. Mind you, the main reason that I wanted to go to the exhibition was simply because of Warhol and to be honest I wasn’t really interested in seeing any other artist alongside him. I guess if there was one thing about this exhibition is that Ai Wei Wei seemed to be intruding upon it a little too much. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t any good – he does have his own interesting style, and he also has some very confronting artwork, however, it wasn’t Ai Wei Wei I went to see, it was Andy Warhol (and if you are interested, here is a link to my post on Warhol).
I guess the reason they did this is because they were using Warhol as the big name to attract the crowds and to expose them to another artist that has been heavily influenced by the work of Warhol. It is true that Warhol and Wei Wei are very similar in their methods, though Wei Wei is much more contemporary than is Warhol. Whereas Warhol was active mostly in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, Wei Wei is still active to this day. However, there was a period in the early 80s where their paths crossed. Despite the similarities, there are, a couple of major differences – whereas Warhol is quintessentially American, Wei Wei is Chinese. Further, while Warhol explored the nature of American consumerism, Wei Wei is much more critical in his subject, and is much more of an activist than was Warhol.

These photos were displayed prominently in the first gallery and they raise the question (at least where I am concerned) as to what aspect of it is the artwork – is it the photos of him dropping the antique vase, or is it actually him dropping the antique vase and the action of him doing so has been captured on film. I am inclined to lean towards the second interpretation in that the photographs are simply catching him performing the artistic impression because for the art to be able to work it needs to be captured on some form of medium.

I guess this is what art has always been – it is not so much the medium upon which it has been captured but rather the image that the medium has captured. Many of us, when we consider art, we always look at the medium – this is a beautiful painting, that is an amazing sculpture – but we fail to see the art that is beyond the medium. Take Michelangeo’s David for instance – many of us look at it as a sculpture of the perfect man, however we tend to get caught up in the sculpture as opposed to what the sculpture represents – humanity in it’s perfect form. The same is true of DaVinci’s Universal Man – it is not the drawing that we should be focused on, but rather what the drawing is about – that is humanity (or should I say man, since even the enlightened renaissance artist was still restrained by their patriarchal society, though Da Vinci also painted the Mona Lisa).
However let us consider these photographs, or more specifically the act of Wei Wei dropping the vase. In this instance we have him dropping a Han Dynasty Vase. What we have here in an artistic reflection of the destruction of history. In a way, the vibrant and dynamic history of our culture is slowly, but surely, being destroyed by rampant commercialism. While Wei Wei was specifically targeting modern China (as seen with the Cultural Revolution) this is true of the modern society as a whole. Our culture and our history are being wiped out and being replaced by a new culture that doesn’t care about history, only about profit. Wei Wei reflects this with the neolithic vase that has been branded with the Coca-cola logo. In a way, the modern branding culture is taking over our history and remaking it in our own image. No longer do we have the image of neolithic man creating a vase, but neolithic man enjoying a drink of coke – the brand is taking over our identity and inserting itself into our past.

The Art of Photography

Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes a photograph a work of art. I have to admit that I go around taking an awful lot of photographs, however, would I consider my photos art – not really. They are just photos of buildings and food. They have a practical purpose since I post them up on Yelp, as well as using them as visual aids for my travel blog. Yet it seems as if an artist goes around taking photographs then all of a sudden they become art. Mind you, I have a friend who is a photographer and he considers the photographs that he takes as a form of art. Mind you, the interesting thing are the tools that he uses to take these photographs – I use a digital camera, and the camera in my smartphone (which is coming very close to the end of its days – I really need to get around to purchasing a new one) whereas he uses film.
Anyway, the next gallery contained a collection of photographs taken by both Warhol and Wei Wei. I have already written extensively on Warhol in a previous post, so let us consider the photos that Wei Wei took. Actually, it seems that he took an awful lot of photographs, not just of his time in New York. Looking at these photos it is not so much the photograph that one should be paying attention to, but rather the subject of the photograph. For instance, a lot of the photographs are of the dark and seedy side of New York – the prostitutes, the homeless people, the drug addicts. Yet this is not the only aspect to these photographs, but also of the ruling class. Whereas Warhol had a lot of focus on the celebrity class, Wei Wei takes aim at the ruling class – such as the photograph of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. In a way, like the celebrity class, the ruling class shuts itself away from the reality of the streets.
(pic - Story) Ai Weiwei - Photo 06
There was another gallery that we stepped into that contained a series of photographs by Wei Wei, and these photographs all held a similar theme – it was a photograph of a building, whether representing the government or culture, with him flipping the birdie (which is an Australian term for sticking up your middle finger). In one sense we would see these photos and have a good old chuckle (and Wei Wei does delve into the realm of satire since it is a great method for getting your ideas across to the world at large) yet they have a deeper meaning. However, a part of us (or me at least), when we read the description next to the photos, are put off more by the description than we are by the photos. I suspect that it has something to do with the relative nature of the art suddenly being destroyed by somebody else’s opinion. Whereas the art at first is defined by the perception of the viewer, once we read the description it suddenly begins to feel that our opinion no longer counts. Sometimes I feel that maybe we should discard the description and just view the photos as we would view them – whether it be a symbol of defiance against authority or just some juvenile prank.
(pic - Story) Ai Weiwei - Birdie Photo 04

Flower Power

Flowers sit in a powerful position in our psyche, and in our art. In fact, one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings is of some sunflowers in a vase. This is no different when it comes to modern artists such as Warhol and Wei Wei, though there are subtle differences in our cultural perception. To us in the west flowers are symbols of love, sexuality and nobility whereas in the Middle Kingdom they are auspicious symbols of wealth and social status, but also symbolise beauty and enlightenment. Mind you, this concept of enlightenment is something that we generally do not grasp here in the west because to us flowers seem to reflect the physical and the sensual, whereas in the east they have more spiritual meanings.
Flowers were actually a very important aspect in Wei Wei’s art, and his use symbolised defiance against tyranny, but not defiance in the form of violence, but defiance in the form of peace. In Wei Wei’s mind one does not defy the state through the use of violent revolution but through peace and beauty. In fact, Wei Wei was arrested, and then placed under house arrest in Beijing, in 2012, and during that time, every day, a bicycle full of flowers would be placed outside his house. This was an act of protest, but not in the sense that we protest here in the west (such as placing a sign up on the Tate Gallery in London calling for the Chinese government to free him) but rather as a sign that while he may be imprisoned, he is still in many ways free.
There is a video (which unfortunately is in Chinese) on Youtube, which is basically a music video of his imprisonment. Underneath the video, somebody posted a comment suggesting that locking up a chubby old man is not a sign of strength but a sign of weakness. However, I would have to disagree with that statement as while on the outside Wei Wei may appear to be a ‘chubby old man’ we must not forget what he stands for. It is not so much that they are locking up a harmless individual, but rather trying to silence a critic. Sure, Wei Wei may be peaceful, but he is still a symbol – a symbol of resistance. This is one of the reasons that Jesus Christ was executed – not because he was a violent revolutionary, but rather because he posed a threat to the social order. It is not the question of whether a person is violent or not, but rather because they are a threat. Okay, Jesus did bust up the money changer operation in the temple, but he was not calling for a violent revolution, he was calling for a spiritual revolution – a revolution that would pose a treat to the established authority.

Found Art

Like Warhol, Wei Wei has also been influenced by the work of Duchamp (the toilet bowl guy, just in case you didn’t know). Mind you, as I suggested in my post on Warhol, it wasn’t anything hugely revolutionary that they were doing with this form of art – Duchamp had already broken the boundaries, allowing others to continue with their experiments – but rather building on their foundations to use art as a form of exploring our society and our culture. Whereas Warhol was building on Duchamp, Wei Wei was using the same techniques to challenge our perception of what is art, and the meaning behind this artistic world. However, Wei Wei does attribute Duchamp through bending a coat hanger into the shape of his face.
The idea of the found form, as I have suggested in my piece on Warhol, can be a means to challenge our perception of the modern world, or simply to create something that makes us think. This is the case with the huge block of tea sitting on a pallet. Okay, it isn’t a pretty picture or some clever sculpture, but it does help us understand a part of Chinese history. As I have indicated previously, one of the aspects of modern culture is the attempt to rewrite, and even erase, the historical record, and this is one of the important things about art – it helps us maintain the truth. The tea is reflective of the main reason behind Europe’s move into China, and that is for trade. However it wasn’t trading on equal terms, it is trade where one partner has a significant advantage over the other. Then again is trade ever equal? Isn’t it the case that everybody involved in the transaction trying to get one up on the other?
Then we have the bottle of Absolute Vodka. Mind you, once again Wei Wei was influenced by Warhol in this regards. However, I suspect that this obsession with Absolut Vodka has something to do with the brand. Is it the case that this brand of vodka represents what Fukujama meant when he said that we have arrived at the end of history? Is this the point that our world was making its way towards, a world of crass consumerism, of trade, of where the rich get richer and the poor get screwed? However, it could also represent the high point of our culture or even that point in which we release that our culture is little more than what is found at the bottom of a bottle. In fact, the idea of the absolute being a bottle of not just any alcohol, but a really potent form of alcohol suggests that that is all it is – outside of the unreality that is created through strong drink there is nothing, and because there is nothing the only thing that we can do it hide from it in a bottle of alcohol.
Yet if you look closely at the bottle of vodka you will notice that inside it is an ancient artifact. Like the neolithic vase that has been branded with the Coca-Cola logo, so the bottle of vodka is subsuming the past. The imagery of the past is being overwhelmed by the commercialisation of the present to the point that the past no longer matters. That is the nature of the modern commercialist society – the past is irrelevant because there is no profit in the past. This is not entirely true as a whole industry has been developed out of exploring the past – one can purchase a holiday to Anatolia and go on a tour of the ancient ruins of the Greco-roman civilisation as well as visit the World War I battlefields. However when one arrives at the ruins they will discover that they are surrounded by stalls selling fake souvenirs, and a ticket box charging fees to walk inside. In fact, like the modern museum, one will visit the exhibition, and immediately when one leaves the exhibition one finds themselves in a gift shop, usually with a desire to purchase something to take home (as I inevitably did, only to discover when I got home that I really had no need for the junk – except for the book on the exhibition).

Stealing Culture

The final gallery – okay it wasn’t THE final gallery because there was another gallery in which the videos of both Warhol and Wei Wei were on display (as well as an exploration of their respective studios) – contained what could be considered the endpoint of their artistic work. Okay, it may not be so much and endpoint of their work, but the exhibition put this at an end. Anyway, with Wei Wei, it was a collection of bronze heads set in a semi-circle. These heads were representations of the twelve heads of the Chinese zodiac that at one time sat in the Forbidden City. However, these heads are no longer there, namely because they were stolen by the British.
This, being the penultimate room, shows another aspect of cultural imperialism. It is not so much that the British arrived and imposed their own culture on Chinese civilisation – this was not possible namely because the Chinese civilisation of the time was already well developed and they simply could not level it to the ground and rebuild China in their own image. This was not like Australia, or the United States, where the original inhabitants lived a very basic existence, and where they weren’t wiped out by disease, they were subjugated by the gun. The civilisation of the indigenous Americans and Australians have now been subsumed into the culture of the west to create this quaint, and somewhat different, extension to the Anglo Empire.
In China, however, this was not the case. The Emperor wasn’t deposed, and the cities were not destroyed. However, the colonial powers moved in and established their own free trade zones. As a symbol of the dominance of the civilisation, they would loot the civilisation of their treasures and take them back to the motherland to put them in museums as spoils of war. This was also the case with the last full-blooded aboriginal in Tasmania, who was taken back to England, preserved, and erected in a museum. This was done in part for scientific purposes, but in the end, it is the reality of the spoils of conquest.
This is the last picture I wish to discuss, and in a way, it identifies the nature, and the role, of the artist. Sure, I try to do a similar thing with this blog, that is to attempt to shine a light in the darkness, and to open people’s minds to the reality of the world in which we live. However, like this blog, most people don’t think too much about the contents of a photo, or a painting, or any other work of art. Many of us simply look at it as pretty pictures and then move on to the next one. Similar to the blogger, the artist sometimes struggles against the ignorance of society, in a vain attempt to open society’s eyes to the reality of the world around them. Interestingly, Jesus used a similar metaphor when delivering the Sermon on the Mount, where he speaks of his followers as being a light to the world. However what the light reveals can be incredibly confronting, and disturbing, and in the end, those who are confronted with such scenes either willingly close their eyes or simply try to extinguish the lamp.

Further Reading

Here are some links for people who are interested in finding out some more about Ai Wei Wei.

This is a link to Ai Wei Wei’ Webpage

This links an article on the Smithsonian website.

New Republic has an article on Ai Wei Wei here.

New Yorker also has an article on Ai Wei Wei.

This is a link to a documentary about Ai Wei Wei.


Creative Commons License

Ai Wei Wei – China’s Conscience by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


2 thoughts on “Ai Wei Wei – China’s Conscience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s