Ai Weiwei is a Creative Artist
by Li Xianting 栗宪庭 and Chang Yihe 章诒和
In summer 1957, Gao Ying was pregnant. She was about to have an abortion because the marriage in all but name she has with Ai Qing attracted had resulted in much criticism and punishment. But Ai Qing was determined that they would have this baby. He said, “This child is the work of both of us, and it is a masterpiece!” p. 29, Ai Qing and I, published by the Beijing October Arts Publishing House.
That child named Ai Weiwei and was indeed a masterpiece. I can say with good reason that Ai Weiwei is a creative artist and is a art exhibitor and social activist motivated by love, his conscience and a feeling of social responsibility.
I first met Ai Weiwei at the “Stars” exhibit in 1980. There I saw several of his paintings of rivers and lakes. The subject was conventional but the way he outlined people and rivers in outline and especially his use of color was not. It was not a conventional realistic sketch of a scene from nature. No, it resembled more the drawings that Chinese scholars sketch before applying paint yet its use of color was not conventional in that it ignored the structure of image, applying a broad brush to several daubs of blue. His daring and willful style and his efforts to transform the elements of Chinese traditional artistic composition left a deep impression.
Later, Ai Weiwei went to the United States and I didn’t hear anything more of him. Not until the middle or late 1990s, because I was in close touch with some artists form the “East Village” that I heard that he was giving a lot of help to those impoverished artists. He even paid for the publication of the books — the Black, the Grey and the White — that introduced the East Village artists and their works, and in particular their performance art. Those three books were the first publications describing their art. In those days, the entire Chinese art world was still in a period of deep freeze. Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming were arrested then because of their performance art. Those small volumes by Ai Weiwei did a great deal to put everyone in touch with one another and encouraging us. The performance art of the early 1990s became known through those small volumes when they reached western art museums and critics. “Talent and wisdom penetrates nature’s mysteries, if some one is a gallant, who can anyone else compare to him? To one who bows his head and thinks deeply, often many stratagems and plans will emerge.” Later Ai Weiwei’s work became widely known in many different personae such as organizer of art exhibits, an art promoter, social activist, architect, and artist. He was constantly active in the Chinese and international art worlds.
Ai Weiwei and Swiss art collector Uli Sigg created an annual avant-garde art award and invited both international and Chinese domestic artists to criticize and judge the entries. Although we don’t thing this award had any great influence on the development of Chinese modern art, it did at least make Chinese modern art better known abroad and opened the eyes of art critics to the broader range of Chinese modern art and served as a reference point for critical evaluations of Chinese modern art. Especially important was the art documents archive that Ai Weiwei established together with the now-deceased Dutch art exhibitor Hanse. Moreover, Ai Weiwei created art exhibition spaces and designed work spaces for artists. Ai Weiwei was the first to open up the Caochang art district of Beijing, which is now one of the most lively art districts of Beijing. Ai Weiwei has certainly been very active in creating locales where artists can rally together. He has also been very active in promoting Chinese modern art abroad. In 2007, he designed “Mahjong” a Chinese modern art exhibit at the Swiss National Museum which was one of the best exhibits of Chinese modern art work of the past decade shown abroad. this exhibit helped the European art world the state of Chinese modern art and created links between it and Chinese artists.
Ai Weiwei has designed many buildings and everyone knows he designed the Bird Cage at the Beijing Olympic Stadium. In the construction of the Bird Cage, he relied on his understanding of the nature of building materials, using traditional Chinese building materials such as gray and red brick and cut in the traditional way and mixed it with modern concrete construction. Thus he created a vision that combined a skin with rich traditional elements with a simple modernistic form. The distinctive Ai Weiwei architectural style became well known in both China and abroad. Especially in his design of the “Restaurant of the Jinhua Representative Office in Beijing”, he combined pressurized concrete slab and glass in the thickness of a wall then used this irregular concrete slab and glass mix to make an irregular exterior wall to solve lighting and other problems for the space. The interior walls and furniture used combinations of these same materials in different ways. Ai Weiwei’s construction style use of inexpensive and simple building materials amidst the frenetic and luxurious buildings going up constantly as China urbanizes are an inspiration.
Ai Weiwei as an artist has been deeply influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. Looking back to the beginning to the Twentieth Century and from mid-century down to the present day, all artists learned from those two great leaders of the art world. The greatest distinction between traditional and modern art is that it changes the role of the artist from craftsman to public intellectual. In practice, this art was characterized by wisdom and ideology, relevance to culture and events in society along with ridicule, satire, and mimicry; using and diverting materials from everyday life. All this because this modern art was inspired by daily life and takes the perspective people living their daily lives together. This art conveys the feelings, love and free will of the artist. It is not grounded, like traditional art, in the isolating, self-admiring styles. Still less is it merely a collection of techniques with which artists amuse themselves. No matter whether it is the artist’s social position and concerns, or the artists perspectives and techniques, the accumulated experience of artists in the modern art field for nearly a century, modern art is a great advance and challenge compared with traditional art. Therefore if we leave behind the basic reference points established in modern art over nearly a century, we will be completely helpless as we try to evaluate Ai Weiwei’s art and the revolutionary progress of modern art.
The most controversial of Ai Weiwei’s works have been those that have been informed by the shapes of famous art objects from the history of Western art. For example, “Fountain of Light” that was first exhibited at Tate Liverpool in the UK. The imitations style was originated by the Soviet artist Tatlin who created models in 1920, 1924 and 1925 of “The Third International Memorial Tower” of 5 – 6 meters in height. The center of the model was a glass cube with a cylindrical core. Within the structure were many functional elements. The building, once complete, was planned to be twice as high as New York’s Empire State Building, then at 318 meters, the tallest building in the world. This building was never built but its plan and model left a lasting impression. This plan forged the style of the sculpture of the communist world and became a symbol for structuralism and functionalism in modern art movement.
Ai Weiwei’s playful imitation works “Fountain of Light” was a colored light made of structural steel and glass crystal seven meters high and six meters in diameter at its base. “Fountain of Light” is taller than the “Third International Memorial Tower” model. This drew laughter and made people think. To understand the significance of this work to Ai Weiwei and its interpretation, we need first to consider Tatlin’s interpretation of the “Third International Memorial Tower”. These models form the context of modern art and the history of the international communist movement. Let’s consider these two works of art and the social meaning attached to them. Ai Weiwei’s “Fountain of Light” is in the form of a lamp and a fountain. This directly leads us to thinking of it as an reference to the “lighting projects” and the “plaza fountains” often seen in Chinese urban development projects. That is, both art works are a satire of the boastful exaggeration in the international communist movement, one from the early period and one from a later one.
Using different materials and different forms, in different environments, call it playful mimicry or a comedic imitation, they are landmarks in the history of satiric art. Using the context of art history and its related social environment, new meanings were created for a new linguistic environment. It has already become a linguistic pattern for the past century of modern and contemporary art. Just as Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa, so to the meaning of the derivative work is deduced from the work that served as its model. Many art works like that were produced in the U.S. pop art movement of the 1960s. One example is Roy Lichenstein’s work in which he used many cartoon panels from the 1950s as the object of his imitations.
Andy Warhol made the well-known 32 silk screen works imitating Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. During the 1980s and 1990s, the international art and photography world were caught in a storm amidst all the famous art works of history became the topic for humorous imitations. Artists all over the world joined in this movement. Many of Ai Weiwei’s works are like this and have been criticized as being mere copies. This criticism just displays ignorance about art history. Ai Weiwei’s “Having Tea” (exhibited in Mori, Japan) is a playful imitation is a play on the works of 100 artists including Johannes Stuttgen who used 100 kilograms of honey to made the cubical work “This is not an art work, it is a product!”
That cube of 100 kilograms of honey was a memorial to Joseph Beuys. Everyone know that this comes from Beuys’ famous works “A Honey Pump in Operation” and “The Oily Chair”. Oil and honey saved the life of Beuys who was wounded in battle, therefore Buys used honey and oil to create “A Honey Pump in Operation” and “The Oily Chair”. In particular, the “Oily Chair” is a solid body with an inclined plane. It was this that inspired Stuttgen and that group of 100 artists to create a 100 kilogram solid of honey in memory of Beuys. Therefore between the two works, in both form and materials, there is a context. In Ai Weiwei’s “Having Tea” the artist’s game was replacing the material and the form. The material of the tea and and a ton of material makes the meaning change in the eyes of the viewer. Like the 100 kilograms of tea symbolized in the work of Joseph Beuys. What does a ton of tea mean to Chinese people? Comparing the idea of tea and a ton of tea will certainly create new associations in their minds.
Ai Weiwei has always sought to find new meaning by transforming traditional Chinese materials and forms. Ai is especially fond of the mahogany materials and the mortise and tenon structure of traditional Chinese furniture. He made a mahogany football model <<Prophecy>> (Divina, major diameter 2.5 meters, minor diameter 70 centimeters, exhibited at the Mori in Japan and the Haus de Kunst in Munich). This art object is finely made of mahogany and is ten times the diameter and several times the weight of a real soccer ball, give the viewer the feeling of falsity and authenticity at the same time: Chinese people are passionate about soccer but Chinese soccer has always disappointed them terribly. Chinese tend of link the sport of soccer with the question of whether or not China is truly a great country. But Ai Weiwei’s “Soccer Ball”because it resembles the fine workmanship of Chinese furniture but is much bigger than life size highlights the big gap between the feelings of strength bound up in soccer and the exquisite feelings produced by the mahogany furniture.
A similar Ai Weiwei product is that famous map of China in mahogany, and a playful imitation of the radical simplicity of the corridor shaped 1999 work of Sol LeWitt. Just as in works of radical simplicity, in these works of Ai Weiwei, the focus is on the materials and the form. Through these playful imitations, he gets people to concentrate on the aesthetic beauty of the Chinese traditional materials and mortise and tenon structure.
Recently, his <<Zodiac Heads>> were exhibited in several major U.S. cities. This is a playful imitation of the water fountain of the 12 zodiacal animals corresponding to the Twelve Terrestrial Branches in the western pavilion Haiyang Hall of the Yuanming Park. Everyone knows the story of how the Yuanming Park, that monument to western architecture, was destroyed and the heads of the animals were lost. They remember also how Chinese companies spent a great deal of money to buy those heads back from the West and how all the experts on cultural relics said that these animal heads were not worth it. However this did make for an ultra-patriotic news story and so the best possible publicity for the companies involved.
Therefore Ai Weiwei enjoyed mimicking and presenting to the public these animal heads, using copper and gold plating to give them a uxorious appearance and to make them over three meters tall, about ten times the height of the original animals. When those twelve golden resplendent animals were stood up in front of people, it gave the impression of making a playful joke, as a uxorious composition, on the “patriotic buying and selling” of these animal heads. Intriguingly, before the story was even even finished, if the Metropolitan Museum of Art were to add this to its collections, then Ai Weiwei would have duplicated these Terrestrial Branch animal heads made according to Chinese aesthetic standards for the foreigners and they would have paid a high price for them. So, which loved China more, the big Chinese companies that paid a high price to buy back the stolen heads or Ai Weiwei who was about to sell his imitation heads to foreigners at a high price? Which one is wiser?
Now what really disturbs some people about Ai Weiwei is his activism. I don’t see Ai Weiwei as being a politician at heart although there are many political elements in his behavior, but that is all a kind of art, be it artistic creations, performance art or event art. Performance art is by nature is a lively expression of freedom. The creation of performance art goes beyond people’s understanding of normal life or even beyond what their sensory perception can endure. This naturally makes this art to some extent separate from an in tension with the values of the state. It can even oppose, betray or stand in opposition to those values. Therefore, we must say in sincerity: politics has its principles, objectives and ways of organizing activities. However, Ai Weiwei’s activities and the events that he plans are not political activities. Rather their purpose is to express the emotions and feelings of an individual. The public nature of Ai Weiwei’s activities and events is what makes his art of this kind creative. To clarify this point, we need to review briefly the development of Chinese performance art.
Chinese performance art has gone through essentially four stages in its development. The first stage was in 1987 – 1989 when cultural criticism was all the rage in China. Performance art in those days often used venues that were culturally symbolic such as the Great Wall and the Ming tombs to express in their own way how cultural constrained individuals. The second stage was in the late 1990s and was characterized by events and pop culture, linked as well to the consumer and commercial culture of the period including pop phenomena like rock, popular music, and paintings, as well as political satire. One example would be artists playing the role of Lei Feng and artists giving miners red kerchiefs as performance art mimicking the behavior of Maoist society.
The third stage was in the middle of the 1990s when some artists gathered in the Maizidian area east of the Great Wall Hotel which everyone called East Village. The artists of East Village were famed for performance art — in their works they placed great stress on body language, often involving self-mortification to convey the troubles they were having.
The fourth stage was symbolized by the performance art and event art of Ai Weiwei. The big difference here was that while performance art was previously confined to the small circle of the art community, now it became more social and public. This performance art now stressed ties to the social context stressed love, feelings of responsibility for society and social criticism, and dialog with the public. Ai Weiwei re-oriented the internal searching of performance art towards Chinese society, towards the public, so that the public will understand and participate in it. Thus performance art became a contemporary art form closely tied to daily life.
Ai Weiwei found his own voice in performance art and event art. He was deeply aware of the transformation of China’s public spaces — the advent of the Internet, and was good at using public media and especially the world of the Internet. This symbolized the creative spirit of his performance and event art — that it had become “The Internet Headline Party”. Every performance or event had to have an easy to remember catch phrase that could travel far — “citizen survey” — the investigation to discover the names of the children who had died in the Wenchuan Sichuan Earthquake. “July 1 Web Strike” — the slogan for the call to boycott the Internet on July 1. “The Old Horse Kicks the Flowers” — using a cellphone to record how one is beaten up by people with a certain purpose etc. Ai Weiwei’s art work expressed just what was drawing his attention in society, expressing his own feelings of love and anger, protest, and reached through widespread communications on the web, reached consensus with with them, and shared feelings of love and anger.
Ai Weiwei speech, art works and especially his behavior over the past several years has certainly not only expressed his own personal voice and vigor but also, through his works, has show to society and the public the attitude of contemporary art towards the human concerns of today.
Why does Ai act this way? Ai Weiwei explained it all in a letter he wrote on January 4, 1978. He wrote “Memories are limitless, they are are like a poisonous snake come to swallow up my young soul. But I did not die from it. Just the opposite, because of this experience I want to live a better life! These twenty years, idiocy, incompetence, ignorance and weakness. Now I understand better. I want to live, I want to be my own master, I want to have a purpose in life, I want to go my own way.”
Ai was just 21 years old when he wrote those words.
Chinese original text
栗宪庭 与 章诒和
在艾未未最招致一些非议的作品中，是那些“戏仿”西方美术史名作形态的作品。如他的《喷泉灯》（Fountain of Light，首次展出在英国的 Tate liverpool）。戏仿的作品是苏联艺术家Tatlind的《第三国际纪念塔》，Tatlin分别在1920年，1924年，1925年做过三个《第三国际纪念塔》的模型，高5或者6米。其中心结构体是由玻璃制成的一个立方体和一个圆柱体组成的核心，建筑内部还有很多功能性的设计。建成后将比当时世界最高318米的纽约帝国大厦还高出一倍。这个纪念塔最终没有建成，但其方案及模型给人留下了深刻的印象。这个建筑方案实际成了共产主义运动的雕塑，并成为现代艺术运动中结构主义和功利主义精神的标志。艾未未“戏仿”的作品《喷泉灯》，做成了一个由钢结构和水晶玻璃构成的大型彩灯，高七米，底座直径六米，比《第三国际纪念塔》模型还高大，幽默而发人深省。对艾未未这件作品的意义和解读，首先需要借用对Tatlin《第三国际纪念塔》的解读，或者说艾未未的《喷泉灯》，与Tatlin的《第三国际纪念塔》，由于它们在美术史和国际共运史中构成了一种上下文关系，所以，让人看到的是这两件作品以及与这两件作品相关联的社会含义。艾未未的《喷泉灯》彩灯和喷泉的形态，令我们直接联想的是中国城市化进程中诸如“灯光工程”“广场喷泉”的一种映射；或者说，两件作品让人看到的是对国际共运一前一后浮夸的讽刺。
使用不同的材质和不同的体量，在不同的环境里，戏仿或者叫滑稽模仿、反讽模仿艺术史上的名作，利用美术史及其相关联的社会情境的上下文关系，在新的语境中以构成新的含义，早已成为近百年现代和当代艺术的一种语言模式。诸如杜尚在蒙娜丽莎嘴上画两撇胡子的作品，就是首先模仿蒙娜丽莎这件名画作为蓝本，这件作品所演绎的含义才能成立。六十年代美国波普艺术中此类作品更是数不胜数，诸如罗伊·里奇滕斯坦的《杰作》，就是选择上世纪五十年代流行于美国的漫画形象作为仿照对象。安迪· 渥霍的32幅仿照坎贝尔浓汤罐头和仿照梦露照片的系列丝网版画，更是家喻户晓。到了本世纪八、九十年代，国际艺术和摄影界形成一股摆拍风潮，而在这个风潮中，把艺术史名作作为戏仿对象的作品比比皆是，中外艺术家多有涉足。在艾未未的作品中有不少此类作品被指为抄袭，实在是一种对美术史的无知。艾未未的《一顿茶》(展出于日本MORI)的戏仿对象，是Johannes Stüttgen等人用100公斤蜂蜜做成的立方体的《不是艺术品／商品！》。其实，那100公斤蜂蜜的立方体，用来纪念博伊斯，谁都知道这本身就是来自博伊斯著名的《工作场中的抽蜂蜜泵》和《油脂椅子》。油脂和蜂蜜挽救了在战争中负伤的博伊斯，所以博伊斯用蜂蜜和油脂做了《工作场中的抽蜂蜜泵》和《油脂椅子》，尤其是《油脂椅子》作为一个带斜面的立体造型，才启发了Stüttgen等人用100公斤蜂蜜做了一个立方体以纪念博伊斯，所以，两者之间在造型和材质方面才能够形成一种上下文的关系。艾未未的《一顿茶》，玩的也是材料和体量的置换，只是，茶的材质和一吨重形成的大体量，给观众带来的含义就发生了变化。就如同100公斤蜂蜜象征的博伊斯精神，而一顿茶对于中国人的含义是什么？两者之间一定会形成一种对比和新的联想。
事实上，艾未未一直期望从中国传统材质和中国传统结构的转换中寻求新的意义，他尤其迷恋中国传统家具的红木材质和榫卯结构的感觉。他做的红木足球模型《预言》(Divina，大的直径两米五十公分，小的直径一米七十公分，展出地点日本MORI和慕尼黑HAUS DE KUNST)，该作品以红木为材质，以极其精细的制作，超大于真实足球直径十倍或数倍的体量，给人一种既荒谬又有某种真切的感觉：中国人对足球的超级迷恋，以及对中国足球的极端失望，心理上有种把足球这项体育运动与国家是否强大挂钩的倾向。但艾未未的“足球”，由于类似中国传统家具的精工细作和超大的框架，却给出一种足球的力量感与红木家具的精巧感觉之间的巨大反差。艾未未同类作品还有那个著名的红木中国地图，以及戏仿极简主义艺术家Sol LeWitt1991年那件象廊子的作品等等，与极简主义同样，艾未未在这些作品里，在乎的就是材质和结构，只是他通过戏仿，让人集中观看的是中国传统材质与独特榫卯结构的美感。