Finding fault with Ai Weiwei has become somewhat of a challenge to critics. For such a bold, deliberately polemic artist who takes on projects of such massive scale he should have left a few openings vulnerable to attack. Annoyingly for the art world, it is not that easy.
Mark Hudson writing for the Telegraph came up with my favourite complaint so far:
“Is he actually a great artist?…..Only a tiny fraction of those who have observed his plight and become familiar with his impassive, bearded, Confucius-in-trainers persona via the media have seen any of his art first hand”. No really, this was a serious concern for Mark. So by this logic, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Picasso, and Hirst cannot be considered great artists either because only a fraction of the people who know about their artwork and could identify it in a line-up have actually seen the pieces in person. Right. The staggering thing to take from that statement is that the thousands of visitors to the Tate Modern to see his Sunflower Seeds, visitors to the Beijing National Stadium (or ‘Bird’s Nest’) for any reason – several hundred thousand to see some sporting event that took place in 2008 – and now his exhibition taking main stage at the Royal Academy are only a tiny fraction of the public he has managed to connect with and make an impression on. This is an incredible achievement.
Hudson also sneers that the exhibition at the Royal Academy “presents our first real opportunity to judge Ai’s work as art rather than an appendage to a news story”. Well, unfortunately, the opening of this exhibition came off the back of the return of Ai Weiwei’s passport in July, confiscated from him by Beijing authorities in April 2011. Which did make the news. And was, rightly, celebrated. But Hudson is right that this exhibition is not an appendage to a news story. Where he is wrong is that none of Ai’s work ever was.
Ai Weiwei is an artist who makes the news. He is not an attention-seeker who uses fame to flog paintings on the side. What confuses many, but is also the reason he is so successful, is that Ai’s pieces are all multi-layered in meaning.
To start, from a purely aesthetic point of view his pieces are astounding feats of craftsmanship. Table and pillar, 2002 is, unsurprisingly, a giant wooden post inserted into a table. But both objects are from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and combined using traditional highly skilled joinery techniques that are now largely forgotten in China. No glue or nails here. The wood is beautiful in its own right, so something that initially looks like a pile of firewood (Kippe, 2006) still carries a feeling of preciousness and permanence you wouldn’t expect from firewood, because you are actually looking at salvaged pieces of once elaborate and expensive beds or shrines. So despite an initial impression of something very similar to a minimalist, Ai cannot be shoehorned into a handy modern art category as his work is peppered with nostalgia of the original architecture that once dominated Beijing, through its materials, technique and form.
Following this, he is extremely appealing to the intellectually curious as he creates bizarre reconfigurations of familiar shapes. Aha! the critics cry. This has been done before! Duchamp stuck a urinal in the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Warhol got into in the Ferus Gallery of Los Angeles with a print of a can of soup in 1962. Subsequently, Ai’s juxtaposition of the Coca-Cola logo on a traditional vase has been snubbed as ‘hackneyed’. But unlike the pop artists (who Ai has credited as artists he admires and is inspired by), Ai is not using popular culture to make fun of or challenge the art world, but he is using the art world to challenge our norms of thinking.
A theme that runs throughout the Royal Academy exhibition is the way Ai plays with notions of measurement. The more obvious: his He Xie is a pile of around 3000 porcelain crabs, modelled to look like ugly cheap plastic toys you could buy from a seaside souvenir store but are in fact made from a highly fragile, costly material. Similarly, sex toys made from jade, a material traditionally considered more valuable than gold in China, challenge the idea of wealth: extreme wealth becomes the means to own an object too beautiful to use. He forces you to think about what is valuable and how we have decided it is valuable – in fact, if we are deciding it is valuable should we be claiming it does in fact have inherent value? The less obvious: his exploration of volume and metric measurements. Treasure Box, 2014, and the 1m cubed block of compressed tea leaves render the block measures transient as the objects crumble over time, or are opened up and reformed.
Even if you aren’t intrigued and entertained by the Escher-type shapes created in Table with Three Legs, anyone who is a keen recycler would enjoy this exhibition through is extensive use of recycled material. The tea also smells fantastic.
Then, finally, if you aren’t convinced by the aesthetics or craftsmanship in itself, Ai Weiwei would still be crowned a great artist based on the messages you can take from his pieces. Where he succeeds is in his clear thinking and refreshingly clear expression. His humorous play with shape, space and volume flow naturally into his humorous yet cutting titles for his pieces. The Chinese word for ‘crab’, for example, sounds very similar to the word for ‘harmonious’ – a word used frequently in government propaganda – and is the title of the piece made to commemorate the feast held in Ai’s Shanghai studio the night before the government demolished the building. One room is dedicated to a eery, massive grass lawn and buggy carved by hand from marble. ‘Cao’, meaning grass, is very similar to the Chinese equivalent to the f-word, but the is also a deliberate choice of word meant to symbolise hope and defiance – grass will always grow again no matter how many times you cut it. The “activism” of socially-concerned Western artists certainly seems a bit limp in comparison to these pieces.
Yes, there are deliberate and powerful political narratives behind several of his pieces. The marble for the lawn was mined from the same quarry that the marble used in Chairman Mao’s mausoleum was. Through his piece S.A.C.R.E.D he blows open the doors to the practices of a secretive, heavily policed state and provides officials and members of the public around the world with a glimpse into what it is like to be held captive for 81 days in a single room under constant surveillance. And yes, there is a nefarious glamour to collaborating with a dissident, the curators at the Royal Academy freely admit that. But he is so much more than a mouthpiece for rebellion. He stands for the same values and essential rights we often take for granted – like the liberty to question everything – and by shattering the culture of acceptance in China he represents real opportunity for change. His constant return to the theme of maps of China in his work are an awareness and acknowledgement that he has relative freedom to move around within and outside of China, he has a perspective of his home country that most natives do not. His work can provide that view, and he has accepted that role of responsibility to share it.
So no, I do not think that his use of Twitter or Instagram begs the question of whether he is a ‘product of the globalisation of contemporary art’ (another, genuine criticism). It is part of the fight, and part of the art. Who cares if you’ve queued to pay £16 to see it in real life or simply liked a photo of it. He is a great artist because he creates great art who can appeal to any demographic of art viewer and whose impact is bigger than the success or failures of his personal skills and will last longer than his individual lifetime.