There’s no doubt that Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei is a game changing artist. In fighting for freedom of expression in his homeland of China alongside several other artists, he has drawn the world’s attention to the importance of art and the ability to create. That’s huge.
When Ai came out against the government after having collaborated on the wildly successful ‘bird’s nest’ Beijing National Olympic Stadium, it was an amazingly brave act. And his continued efforts to speak out against injustice via social media channels is, I think, one of the more important aspects of his artistic practice. He is a freedom fighter.
But something about much of Ai’s sculptural and installation work has always bothered me. Some of it strikes me as art that’s so easy to ‘get’ – the memorial work made from backpacks to represent the children who died in the 2008 earthquake, for example – that it eludes deeper meaning.
Others, in his exhibition currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario are extremely elegant. There’s a beautiful installation Teahouse, 2011. If the house is said to represent the Self, and these houses are made of densely packed chinese tea (a drink deeply embedded in Chinese cultural history – it’s one of the seven necessities of life) then I should probably see this work as a kind of self-portrait, but it seems too neat.
Ai Wei Wei isn’t so straightforward. His photographic series Study of Perspective for instance, begun after his return to China from twelve years spent living and studying in the US in 1993 shows the artist giving the finger to a number of well-known monuments. There’s Tianamen Square, which I understand, but there’s also the White House, which I don’t. And the Eiffel Tower. Why would he give the same gesture to governments that suppress freedom of express and to those that support it?
In the United States, Ai was part of a group of Chinese artists who studied there in the years after the Cultural Revolution. It’s clear from the art that he made at that time and the photographs that he took that he admired and learned a lot from the giants of Western art, including Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
He had also grown up in Communist China, with a poet father who had been exiled under Mao’s Anti Rightist Movement. Given his background, it would seem that he’d be naturally suspicious of a government that, during the Olympics in 2008, sought to simultaneously present a wholesome face to the world while trying to hide “the whole political structure, the condition of civil rights … corruption, pollution, education, you name it.”
Other installations more directly address the treatment of China’s historical past. Coloured Vases (2007 – 2010) shows Han Dynasty vases which have been covered in industrial paint perhaps in homage to Warhol. Likewise, in the wonderful sculpture Kippe he stacks pieces of dismantled Qing dynasty temple wood into a neat rectangular pile like firewood, suggesting a throw-away response to a long and valuable history.
Ai himself seems to be trying to make sense of it all: He’s a Westernized Chinese living through social media in a country where creative freedoms are not yet permitted. He is married to one woman and has a child by another. It’s as if he wants to engage with tradition, and also to fight against it.
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until October 27. More info HERE.