It premiered at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington 2½ years ago, in October 2012, and has since been all around Joe’s barn, playing the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Pérez Art Museum Miami before settling in for what may (or may not) be its final venue. There the (somewhat refurbished) presentation has been organized by Brooklyn’s own Sharon Matt Atkins.
Lots of things in China are huge—the population, the land space, the skyscrapers, and the burgeoning economy, so it should come as no surprise that, of the 50 items on the Brooklyn checklist, a fair number are either individually large (like a 30-foot long snake, made of children’s backpacks), or consist of a large number of contingent elements (like a series of 98 individually framed photographs).
STAGE ONE: HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Oh yes, Ai Weiwei is well known to the Western world today as well as in China, but he wasn’t always famous. It took what might be described as a three-stage launch to get him where he is today, having started out in the 1980s from virtually nowhere.
Stage One refers to his early life, starting in China but leading to more than a decade in the Big Apple. His father was Ai Qing, arguably the best-known Chinese poet of his generation, but also one who got caught up a governmental purge of intellectuals that began in 1957, the year of Ai Weiwei’s birth.
As a result, the entire family was exiled from Beijing to remote villages in the interior, including 5 years in a quasi-military re-education camp on the edge of the Gobi desert. There Ai Qing was forbidden to read or write, and had to scrub toilets every day.
When Ai Weiwei was 19, the family was allowed to return to Beijing, and Ai Qing was exonerated two years later. Ai Weiwei enrolled at the Beijing Film Institute, but also tried his hand at art, becoming part of a community of artists & writers called the Stars Group that managed to run afoul of the government. Ai Weiwei had a girl friend with relatives in the US, and (presumably with their help) he came to New York in 1981—to seek his fortune in New York’s free atmosphere, like so many other immigrants before him.
Here in New York, he would be far away from governmental interference in the arts--that is, unless you wanted to count occasional fire-breathing Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, who in 1999 was to turn the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of works from the Saatchi collection into the biggest hit of its season by complaining that one work in it, the “Black Madonna” by Chris Ofili, was “anti-Catholic” because it incorporated elephant dung and tiny photos of pudenda.
Here in New York, Ai was to spend between 12 and 17 years, depending on whether you believe the NYTimes or Ai’s official biography. First, he lived in Brooklyn, then Manhattan. He studied art briefly at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League, but began to focus more upon photographs (many of local demonstrations) and conceptual art.
He’d developed an enthusiasm for Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol & Jasper Johns, and he exhibited with Ethan Cohen, but fame eluded him---conceivably because photographers & conceptual artists with an enthusiasm for those particular three artists were, to put it mildly, not exactly rare in New York in the 80s and 90s.
The NY Times records Ai’s presence only twice during those years. The first story, by Richard Bernstein, dated August 28, 1991, concerned the reaction of New York’s Chinese community to the shooting death of a Chinese artist, apparently by a young man who was sitting for his portrait.
Immigrant Chinese artists who had studied at Chinese art schools learned the academic techniques of Soviet Realism, which made (and makes) them wizards at portraiture (they set up shop around the streets and parks of the Big Apple, and charge tourists modest fees for a charcoal sketch). Ai hadn’t had that training, but (according to a later reminiscence by a fellow Chinese artist quoted by Corey Kilgannon in a NY Times blog dated May 13, 2011) he’d tried his hand at portraiture all the same. He’d done reasonably well with it, too – yet Bernstein in 1991 quoted Ai as saying, “After 10 years living here, I don’t think there’s so much opportunity.”
The second reference in the 90s is in a review by Holland Cotter, whose reputation at the NY Times is founded upon his early commitment to diversity. The show he reviewed, on March 13, 1998, was “Painters from China” at Max Protech. Every other artist in the show was living in China, but Ai was still resident in New York, according to Cotter. He described Ai’s contribution – an “ersatz Tang vase emblazoned with a Coca-Cola label”—as “Pop, pure and simple.” This Asian version of a mustache on the Mona Lisa seems to have been the least challenging item in the show, as Cotter then continued, “Elsewhere, though, the work gets stranger and harder to pigeonhole….”
STAGE TWO: LOCAL FAME
Possibly this review helped Ai to decide to return to China. The official explanation is that his father was failing, and Weiwei returned to China in 1993 because he wanted to be near him--so either Cotter was wrong or the artist’s official biography is off-base. At any rate, I am forcibly reminded of “How My Art Gets Made,” by Jules Olitski in the Fall 2001 issue of Partisan Review, which Ai almost certainly didn’t read, but which offers a tantalizing meeting of the minds.
Commenting on everything he deplored in the art scene in Manhattan, Olitski wrote that “creative energy can thrive when there is a culture to go up against.” Since in his tastes and his art, Ai personified that New York culture, maybe he simply found it too accommodating. China might offer him “something to go up against.” In any event, it offered him a chance to stop being a small frog in a big pool, and the chance to become a bigger frog in a smaller pool (the “pool” in question being the Chinese vanguard, where Western dada seems to have been less widely admired).
He returned to his homeland, and in the next decade or so became famous—in China, at any rate. In June 22, 2007, Cotter – writing about the Kassel Documenta – called him “a figure of Warholian celebrity in China and a major force in that country’s neocapitalist vanguard culture” Ai was also apparently rich enough and sufficiently in favor with the Chinese government to be bringing 2,001 Chinese visitors to Kassel.
“According to What?” at the Brooklyn Museum, doesn’t tell us too much about what Ai was doing during those first years of the new century. Of the 50 items on the checklist, only 9 come from before 2000, and only 10, from between 2000 and 2006.
What there is, from these earlier years, is mostly photographs and videos. The photographs are not bad, but not remarkably good either, while the videos are beyond my sphere of competence. Of the 31 works from between 2007 and 2014, a goodly number continue with variations on the mustache/Mona Lisa theme. They use (or should I say misuse?) Han Dynasty pottery and Qing Dynasty furniture. Some pots have been dropped so that they break (this act being duly recorded in serial photographs). Some have been decorated with bright new paint or logos. Sculptures have been built out of pieces of the furniture.
Purists have been horrified by this, especially the treatment accorded Han Dynasty pots, since these are ancient (206 BC – 220 AD, roughly corresponding to the Roman era in Europe). Still, there must have been an awful lot of pots made during the Han Dynasty, as they are apparently quite common even today & not that pricey. A recent visit I made to E-Bay shows quite a selection, with prices ranging from $1,750 down to $5.99 (that’s right, one penny below $6). And, as nearly as I can tell, none of these E-Bay items were being offered from China. This suggests to me that there must be untapped reserves of these items within China itself.
The Qing Dynasty (what we used to call the Manchu Dynasty) is a lot more recent; in fact, it was China’s last (beginning in 1644, & ending in 1911, with its deposition by Sun Yat-sen and the creation of the Republic of China). Furniture, to be sure, is a bigger ticket item than pottery, but (again, to judge from E-Bay) there still seems to be a goodly amount of Qing Dynasty furniture around, and, for what you get, prices are reasonable. By the 18th century, there were already 400 million Chinese, and even if only a small percentage of them was rich enough to afford nice furniture for its homes, that would still have underwritten a fairly sizable production.
A further element in this second stage of Ai’s rise to fame was provided by his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron, a Swiss architectural firm, on a half-dozen gargantuan Chinese construction projects. These and other major undertakings were outlined by Arthur Lubow, in a big article in the NY Times magazine section for May 21, 2006, “The China Syndrome.” Lubow told how the Swiss firm and Ai together cooked up six major projects. Though only two were realized, one was the National Stadium (aka “The Bird’s Nest”), centerpiece of the 2008 Olympic summer games.
“Expect to be overwhelmed,” raved Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NY Times’s architectural critic, on August 5, 2008. “….the stadium lives up to its aspiration as a global landmark. Its elliptical latticework shell…has an intoxicating beauty that lingers in the imagination….” At a total cost of $480 million, it must have netted Ai a tidy sum as consulting artist, and his standing within the hierarchies of the Chinese government can never have been higher.
But shucks. He was still only a celebrity within the worlds of art and architecture. He was already being written about in the NY Times, but (with few exceptions) only in Section C, the culture ghetto, and in general this must have been true of his worldwide press.
STAGE THREE: WORLD FAME
The next thing we hear about Ai is his entry into the political arena—his launch into Stage Three. In an interview with Flora Zhang posted at the NY Times website on August 4, 2008, he announced that he wasn’t going to attend the opening ceremonies at the stadium. He went on to attack the government’s whole Olympic effort as a “pretend smile,” adding that he’d chosen this phrase because “I was questioning whether it’s possible for a society that doesn’t have democracy to excite the joys and celebrations of its people…..” Here at last was a culture “to go up against.”
The article attracted 117 comments, and MUCH political discussion—some attackers and some defenders, and from numerous Chinese contributors as well as Caucasians. I rather liked the sardonic comment offered by “Will.” According to Will, the whole thing was “Hilarious. Critical of the Chinese government after getting the paycheck and press for designing the building. Nice work.”
I must admit, this isn’t quite fair to Ai, as he seems to have started the activist (Stage Three) of his career months earlier, by protesting (at his blog) official media coverage of the great Sichuan earthquake that had hit this relatively backward and impoverished area of China in May 2008. According to the lengthy article on Wikipedia, this earthquake must have been one bad event. Measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale at its epicenter, its tremors were felt as far away as Russia, India and Japan.
Even according to official estimates, it killed nearly 70,000 people, injured 374,000 and left more than 18,000 missing. It leveled 80 percent of all the buildings in its central areas, left between 5 and 11 million people homeless, and caused an estimated $20 billion in damages, even though – according to Wikipedia—the damage was most serious in poorer villages and more rural parts of the province, where buildings were older and had not been built according to more recently enacted standards (standards most likely enacted since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed at least 240,000).
Particularly tragic in Sichuan were the more than 5,000 students killed when at least 7,000 old and/or badly built schools collapsed on them. Because of China’s “one-child per family” rules, all or at least almost all of these children must have represented their parents’ only offspring. Although the government promised free treatment by fertility clinics to parents wishing to reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations, this situation attracted many charges that corrupt building authorities had failed to ensure proper materials and methods—and that the official media were failing to cover this situation.
These charges, too, are mentioned in the Wikipedia article (suggesting that it wasn’t written entirely by government PR people), and Ai Weiwei is singled out for his leadership of this protest. However, the article doesn’t say that he was the only one, or that the government refused to cover the quake at all—impressions that the Brooklyn show manages to suggest which are considerably at odds with the massive amounts of evidence of governmental concern described by the Wiki article.
Not that it matters much, in an artistic context (as opposed to a context more concerned with ascertaining the facts). Certain it is that ever since, Ai Weiwei has continued to criticize the Chinese government – at first through his blog, and then, when the government shut it down, through videos, articles in the foreign press and Twitter.
Most of the later art in the Brooklyn show is also inspired by protest. There is, for example, “Remembrance” (2010), an audio over which a voice recites the names of students killed in the Sichuan quake (this “sculpture” lasts 3 hours and 41 minutes).
Then there is “Straight”(2008-2012), 38 tons’ worth of steel reinforcement bars (used to strengthen concrete construction). These “rebars” were supposedly taken from the sites of ruined Sichuan schools, where they had all been twisted up by the quake. Then they were hammered back into straight sticks of steel & laid out on the floor like a giant carpet—which looks midway between a Carl Andre and a Richard Serra.
There is also “Snake Ceiling” (2009), the sculpture made of student backpacks that coils round and round again, on the ceiling. It’s clever (the idea that you can make a snake out of backpacks) but visually not much
Another, more recent example of “protest” is “Ye Haiyan” (2013), a mixed-media installation paying homage of a Chinese woman activist. The story is that the Chinese government, by way of reprisal, evicted Ye from her home and put her and all her possessions out on the street. Thus the installation is partly parcels, furniture and suitcases piled in the middle of the room, and partly dozens of items of clothing and other personal and household knickknacks fastened to the four walls of the gallery.
One problem with all of these works is that you can only savor their significance as protest by reading their labels. A second problem is that they can be awfully familiar. This is now the third time in as many years that I’ve seen a Chinese installation composed of dozens or even hundreds of personal effects—having previously seen one at the New Museum that I rather liked, and another in the atrium of MoMA that struck me as much of a muchness.
The degree of familiarity is such that, when she saw the show at the Hirshhorn in 2012, Roberta Smith was obliged to report in the NY Times on October 12 that “The exhibition is dominated by sculptures and installation pieces…[that] conform to the familiar, fashionable international genre of handsome, Conceptually generated artworks that elaborate on the tried-and-true tradition of the Duchamp ready-made and the Johnsian remade ready-made…”
What apparently saved the show for her was a) the fact that Ai “might be the world’s most famous living artist” and b) the political backstories provided by the labels, backstories that she set up on the early part of her piece by describing the torment that Ai had undergone for his political outspokenness:
“In 2009,” she reported, “he was beaten by the Chinese police. In 2010, a large new studio that he had built in Shanghai at the local government’s enthusiastic invitation was condemned, and later torn down, ostensibly for code variations. In 2011 he was imprisoned for 81 days, accused of tax evasion and distributing pornography….”
She added that he was continuing his protests, via Twitter and what seems to have been fairly regular contact with Western journalists (he even contributed an article to Newsweek). However, since he wouldn’t pay his back taxes or government fines, his passport had been revoked, making it impossible for him to attend the show’s opening.
Those 81 days in jail (less than three months) seem to have been what really made Ai into “the world’s most famous living artist.” Though some of the numerous stories dealing with him and/or his incarceration only made Section C of the Times, a fair number made it to Section A, the hard-news section, where the he-men who don’t bother about mere art can and presumably did read about him.
Women, too, who wouldn’t be caught dead going to Chelsea to look at paintings or sculpture, at least know who he is. “He’s an activist,” said one such lady when I asked her about him recently---rather impatiently, as though I ought to know at least THAT.
HOMECOMING: TO BROOKLYN
Playing host to the world’s most famous living artist clearly had the Brooklyn Museum all in a tizzy. The full-dress media preview was well attended by (among many others) at least one visitor from London and at least one who'd seen the show in Miami. It was a festive affair, with a lavish spread of bagels, cream cheese & fresh fruit as well as pastries, and orange juice as well as coffee & tea.
Arnold Lehman, the museum’s director, happily welcomed Ai back to his “roots” in Brooklyn, and introduced a short video that starred Ai himself (since the government still hasn’t given him back his passport, he was unable to attend in person). Looking a bit middle-aged and plump, but speaking excellent English, Ai thanked everybody & praised New York and Brooklyn. He also pointed out that he’d added some pieces of art for the Brooklyn version of the show.
These pieces would be welcomed by Roberta Smith, in her April 18 review of the Brooklyn version. Conceivably she’d taken heat for her less-than-totally enthusiastic review of the Hirshhorn version. What can the pomonian world be coming to, after all, when its most famous practitioner, a passionate political progressive, and a member of a minority group, fails to satisfy the New York art world’s ultimate arbiter?
Fortunately, this time around she was able to report that the show had been “beefed up throughout.” With two new installations, it was now “something of a triumph.” One of its two new installations, entitled “S.A.C.R.E.D,” was “perhaps the best work of art Mr. Ai has made yet.” A full-color photograph showing one view of “S.A.C.R.E.D” occupied almost the entire top half of page C1.
“S.A.C.R.E.D.,” which was made last year and shown in Venice during (but not at) the Biennale, is definitely a lot of fun. It suggests to me that Ai didn’t spend all of his time in New York photographing demonstrators or making portraits of tourists. He most likely also visited the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and perhaps also the wondrous display of monster dollhouses that used to delight me as a child visiting the Museum of the City of New York (the area is currently undergoing renovation, but Ai could easily have seen it in the 80s or 90s).
On the outside “S.A.C.R.E.D.” looks like six large gray minimalist cubes, such as Tony Smith or Donald Judd might have made. But each has a little window on the front, which a visitor can peer through, to see 6 little scenes of a prison cell, each with a little statue of Ai, accompanied by little statues of one or two uniformed guards. The cell has a bed, a table, a chair, and an open closet, with quite an extensive selection of clothing hung in it. At the back is a partially closed off private bathroom.
The six scenes show Ai entering the room, eating, being interrogated, sleeping, showering and crapping. You can’t see the action of the two last-named scenes from the little window at the front, but there’s another little window on top that allows you to peer down and get a bird’s eye view of him in the shower or on the toilet.
I didn’t realize there was that bird’s eye view when I was at the preview—but by the end of the week, the Times was right there, to show me (the showering scene, though I had to email the museum to find out whether the other view showed Ai doing No. 1 or No. 2).
How great is all of this as art? You got me there, Momma. As I said before, the jailhouse scenes are fun, but the rest of it (as Smith said) is familiar, and if you want me to be outraged by the persecution Ai is undergoing, I would be much more outraged if he wasn’t getting such an awful lot of mileage out of it.
I’m told that he looks upon his political activities as a form of performance art, but as I’m neither a theater, dance, music nor film critic, I don’t consider myself competent to evaluate the work as performance.
I do note that if one wants to become a performance artist, punishment is not infrequently part of the game. Other performance artists have been subjecting themselves to various forms of self-abuse since the 1970s, when Chris Burden started the ball rolling by having his assistant shoot him in the arm.
In other, more recent, performances, one artist has cut his partner’s back, stuck paper towels in her bloody wounds, then strung the bloody towels out over the audience; another has hammered a nail through his penis while cracking jokes, and a third (a Chinese artist) has branded his ID number on his body and planted grass upon his back.
The practice of self-torture, in fact, has become so common that it even has a name: “extreme performance,” and a short (poorly researched) essay in Wikipedia. The sorts of self-mutilation are only rarely political protests, but at least one claims that distinction: the Russian artist who sat naked with his scrotum nailed to the cobblestones of Moscow’s Red Square to protest Russia’s decline into a police state.
In this context, maybe Ai’s big distinction is that he’s gotten the Chinese government to do his punishment for him. He didn’t have to leave the U.S., after all, and go back to China, if he cared so deeply about political freedom. And the ordeals to which he’s been subjected by the Chinese government have made him famous in the same way that Rudy Giuliani made the Saatchi show at Brooklyn a hit by complaining about it.
I don’t mean to suggest that Ai’s stands haven’t been very courageous, but, to the extent that they exist within an artistic context, they would also appear to be well-rewarded. I have no idea how much he gets for his art work when he sells it himself, but if the secondary market is any guide, protest pays.
While the current show was in Miami this winter, a local citizen walked into it, and, mimicking the photographs showing Ai dropping and breaking a vase, picked up one of the vases on display, dropped it and broke it. Later, he explained that he was protesting the way that the museum was spending big money upon a show by a foreign artist, while neglecting local talent. Fair enough, but how much damage had he really done?
Headlines across the country screamed that a million-dollar vase had been destroyed, so The New Yorker, in its urbane way, tried to cut this startling figure down to a suitably artistic size. Ben Mauk, in its February 28 issue, tut-tutted that the last time any of those vases had been sold at auction, a group of nine had brought only $150,000 when it came up on the block at Sotheby’s in 2007.
The Miami museum’s employees, he went on, had speculated that, given Ai’s stunning rise to world fame, and the overall vogue for Chinese artists, a group of nine might be worth $500,000 today. Somehow or other, Mauk suggested, this already inflated figure had been exaggerated by the sensation-seeking media into a million.
But were the media altogether off-base? I wonder. My own research (on google) suggests that maybe a million isn’t altogether out of the ballpark. In 2007, the same year that the vases went on the block, another piece by Ai set a personal best when his “Chandelier” went for $657,000 at Sotheby’s. In 2012, his porcelain “Sunflower Seeds” set another artist’s record at Sotheby’s, when it went for $782,500. That was two years ago, and, to judge from the reports on NY’s May auctions of contemporary art by Carol Vogel in the NY Times, the market is still hot…..
David Evison, the British sculptor, is based in Berlin but was born in China and frequently visits there. He read my novella in hard copy last week as he is a subscriber to my print edition, and sent me the following email--which I think adds something our understanding of the Chinese mind:
"I loved your funny piece on Aiweiwei. He was made guest professor at the Universitaet der Kuenste Berlin by the Senator for Culture and currently has an installation of 1000 stools (the ones you sit on), garnered from all over China. I like the way you keep pointing out it all comes from Duchamp. One can be bolder and say he is just copying, which Chinese artists are very sensitive about.
"'I think the Chinese authorities like it that his name is in the lights, and help maintain it, as it detracts attention from the real dissidents, like Liu Xiaobo currently languishing in a concentration camp. He was awarded the Nobel Prize.
"I am told that the newspaper crits here [in Germany] have been mainly negative which was not the case before this show. How they can judge one installation better than another beats me. I guess they are getting tired of him and waiting for the next Wunder to arrive...."