Art, Politics and Media in one gesture
Here Ai Weiwei is in a Munich hospital in September 2009 after surgery for a brain hemorrhage. He has used social media (twitter + blogging) since 2005 and throughout the 2011 documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” you see how blogging or using twitter (@aiww | @aiwwenglish) is integral to his art practice.
Sitting in hospital here holding out his camera and giving the finger is Ai Weiwei at work as both art and activist. His extensive oeuvre as a conceptual artist inform those of us who choose to read this as art, that like Joseph Beuys and many others, intent makes this art. That the blog is hosted by the “Haus der Kunst” as one of the works in the show is the means for immediate access to the museum visitor. But there is another layer going on here. In China only officially approved blogs are allowed and twitter is often blocked by the government as are his blogs. So for a Chinese person to even engage in using twitter or any media (all publications are censored) not officially approved is an act of rebellion: hence the finger – as an aesthetic response and as act of defiance.
When I first heard the publicity surrounding his hospitalization I found it over the top because of the focus on him and his health. Seeing the documentary gave me a context.
His continual badgering – his ongoing showing and telling is both a performative and tactical staging. The artist as activist who reveals, or the artist as human being wanting to live in a society where there is justice and freedom of expression.
The August 2009 beating in Chengdu also had artistic and political contexts. Ai Weiwei was there to provide evidence in support of Tan Zuoren on trial for “inciting subversion of state power” (More details are here) who was arrested 3 days after publicly releasing a report showing that over 5000 students had died as a result of shoddy school buildings which collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.Ai Weiwei’s own findings collected with the help of over 50 volunteers, yielded 5212 names of students and similar evidence. Then Ai Weiwei was beaten by the police during a 3 a.m. raid the night before he would appear in court and he was then locked inside the hotel. As an artist who documents he had his camera and a video camera rolling. Footage of this is in the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”
His persistent documenting is a double-edged sword. His showing and telling – his own transparency – makes his both art and a human interest story to his thousands of followers, inspiring them to act as actors, participants or observers (some come to photograph). Is it less art if participants are drawn in to act? Less an artwork if it is also activism? Is it less worthy if it is also performative? His work here is art as a story told and activism as managed by an artist.
His use of social media is a way to communicate with his fellow citizens as much as a for medium for expression. And each time his access to his blog or to twitter is blocked, like many of the youth, he finds another way to communicate: all thanks to Tim Berners-Lee for keeping the web open to all and to the ubiquitous nature of the digital. However less than three percent of Chinese citizens are able to get around the “Great Firewall” (“Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest” by Danielle Allen) which censors much of the internet in China.
“Eight months after the beating, he returned to Chengdu to file an official complaint and request an investigation. Several months later, having seen no action, he returned again to Chengdu with the strategy of filing requests for a hearing in as many government offices as possible. This series of encounters with government officials—nervous, bored, perfunctory, violent—is one of the film’s most powerful segments, and also one that Ai has broadcast via Twitter.When one journalist who accompanied him on these visits asked him why he kept at it, he was told by Ai that “you can’t just say that the system is flawed; you have to work through the system and show it in all of its detail; that’s the only way you can ultimately make a critique.”
Will Ai Weiwei’s efforts make any difference? He is an artist whose work of petitioning is straightforwardly political, but whose use of the blogosphere to publicize that petitioning is artistic and political at once. But what exactly is the relation between voice as expression—the artist’s voice—and voice as influence: the citizen’s voice? And do social media change that relationship?”(“Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest” by Danielle Allen)
While there is a short introduction to his conceptual works, the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” tends to focus on him as an activist. There were aspects of his personal life shown that most would have kept out such as his out of wedlock child and the scenes with his mother who didn’t like what he was doing. You also see him as being silly and sometimes overzealous – being fallible and human. Perhaps this is a good thing since there is already an excellent documentry produced by the BBC in 2010 (you can watch it online here) which focusses on him as an artist.
And for someone immersed in the art world as I am Klayman’s human interest approach didn’t stop me from reading his blogging, videos, actions, and his silence at the end of the documentary as an ongoing work of art.The documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is worth it just for the sections surrounding the destruction of his Shanghai studio while he was under house arrest and the celebratory flash mob meal of boiled lobsters by hundreds in his absence, days beforehand. The million-dollar studio was demolished because it was deemed illegal despite government approval issued a year earlier. And when thousands of individuals donated money to pay for a hefty fine issued by the government, in Kafkaesque style, he is then fined again by the government for this illegal collection of money. Similar or worse things happen to many activists but when they happen to an artist they can reworked into something enduring and universal.
The documentary begins with his 50 or more cats and while Klayman focussed on the one in a million cat who was clever enough to open the door by jumping against the handle I interpreted the overkill of domestic cats as a form of tactical aesthetics. Like giving the finger – an infantile gesture – the artist has far too many cats (too much of anything changes things), but there is another layer of meaning in the Chinese context. Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph wrote on her blog: “Deng Xiaoping’s famous declaration that “it makes no difference if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” So much of Ai Weiwei’s work and life is devoted to wading through the black and white of ethical and political behavior, not to mention tangling with the often indiscriminate “mouse-catching” of the Chinese government” (Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph)
Ai Weiwei has so many cats that it is satire or theatre (art at play).
Ai Weiwei’s latest video clip (released on youtube on 24 Oct 2012) of himself dancing “Gangnam Style” is another example of an art-life-act that runs in many directions. Someone who loves the South Korean rap artist PSY’s song which went viral in July 2012 will see this as poking fun at a hero. For another it is poking fun at oneself – an overweight middle-aged man who looks more like he is having fun exercising than dancing. It shows you don’t need to be beautiful to do something. For another it is poking fun at the meme: the latest trend. And artist Anish Kapoor has picked up on this as well, although he stated that he made the video in response to the Chinese government’s blocking of Ai Weiwei’s video.
For the art world it pokes fun at the art of refinement or perhaps the slickly-made music video – his video is like a home movie where he and his studio assistants walk outside his house to perform for the camera which wobbles here and there, while waving dried leaves and handcuffs around. The shots of horses in stables appear suddenly and are gone again as if they were a mistake someone forgot to remove before the final cut.
Ai Weiwei employs artisans of the highest level when he wants to and his work is characterized by its attention to detail so anyone in the art world knows that the video “style” is a deliberate gesture.
For a Chinese viewer the horses in the stalls also poke fun at censorship. The Mandarin phrase ‘cào ni ma’ (grass mud horse) a mythical creature also means ‘fuck your mother’ and since 2009 has been widely used as word play in response to the censorship on the use of words on the internet in China (the characters used to write its name are benign and so remained undetected by the digital filters).
Words can be censored but meaning and thinking are as uncontrollable as a herd of cats. So it makes sense that when freedom of speech is controlled words have to be wordplay and gestures thrust the forbidden meanings into the public space.