Ai Weiwei's Life & Art – On- and Offline

What sort of artist would Ai Weiwei have been without the Internet and its instruments of social media?

Is the Arab Spring coming to China? Over the course of a dozen years, protests in China rose nearly ten-fold, from approximately 8,700 public protests in 1993 to 84,000 in 2005. That’s one every six minutes. And certainly the estimate of 84,000 is low, given the Chinese government’s ubiquitous censorship.

One of the lessons learned from the Arab Spring was that online dissent can produce political change – but only once it triggers offline dissent. Hosni Mubarak’s regime, while threatened by criticism over the Internet, was only toppled after tens of thousands poured into Tahrir Square. And while there were at least 30 ethnic Tibetan self-immolations in the last year opposing China’s exile of the Dalai Lama and the harsh repression of Tibetan religious and cultural practices, these were protests of desperation, never strategically positioned to bring about a change in policy and destabilize the party-state’s authority. Simply said, for an Arab Spring to take hold in China it will need a catalyst – a version of Tahrir, not Tiananmen Square. But that seems unlikely. Why? China has finessed their policy of selective tolerance so that certain popular public protests can surface without undermining the state’s authority.

Ai Weiwei, Fairytale (Dormitory), 2007, Kassel, Germany

Ai Weiwei, Fairytale (Dormitory), 2007, Kassel, Germany

To the other side of this moderated offline dissent stands the Internet, and while the number of Chinese users on the Web is astonishing – 300 million on the microblog ‘Sina Weibo alone – the government heavily censors online access. In mid-February 2011, after there were anonymous calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on some Chinese language websites, 16 notable human rights lawyers and well-known bloggers were detained within days, sending a clear message about the future of any revolution. Furthermore, China blocks Twitter and Facebook, which were essential for mobilizing activists in the Arab Spring. To complement the blunt instruments of censorship and detention, Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security recently ordered police to use microblogs to ‘pay attention to hot topics people are talking about on the Internet’ – presumably to forecast offline dissent – while blogging to ‘guide public opinion’. The Communists have perfected a system of checks and balances, in which they benefit from public protests in order to vent popular feelings for activism, but ruthlessly constrict activists from being able to create operational online networks for mobilizing change. With this system of give and take in place, they use pervasive surveillance to see ahead of the activists, all the while trying to shape public opinion.

Into this perfect storm, where the government modulates populist free expression and downgrades human rights, comes Ai Weiwei. What sort of artist would he have been without the Internet and its instruments of social media? As he has said himself, ‘Without the Internet, I would not even be Ai Weiwei today.’ That’s not entirely true. Just like Yue Minjun’s cynical realism, his audience didn’t rely exclusively on the Internet to discover Ai’s brand of politicized art, but admittedly the Internet gave him access to a vast audience beyond the reach of conventional exhibitions. His plainspoken statement bluntly emphasizes how Ai frames his own persona as an artist and a political activist.

 

Ai Weiwei and Magasin 3 curator Tessa Praun

Ai Weiwei and Magasin 3 curator Tessa Praun

But now that persona must necessarily change because the government has blocked the means by which he became an international political activist, the very means that, elsewhere, helped trigger the triumph of the Arab Spring. With his release after three months of government confinement this past June came travel restrictions and a gag order – no interviews and no speaking about his detention. Chinese officials had already silenced his blog, stripping him of the means to continue as a political activist with an international audience. But the government, exercising its (ironically) crippling policy of selective tolerance, put no constraints on his being an artist. This speaks volumes about the value and relevance of art to create political transformation; Weiwei could not travel, Tweet or blog, or conduct interviews with the press, but his artistic practice was left intact.

We are left to hear Ai’s voice through an extraordinary exhibition at Magasin 3 in Stockholm, Sweden, organized by Tessa Praun, who intrepidly concludes her essay in the catalogue by writing: ‘Since his release in June last year he has been forbidden to travel, to be active on the Internet or to speak to the media. To me this makes it all the more important to present Ai Weiwei in his first solo exhibition in Sweden and to continue making his voice heard.’

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2009

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2009

Walking through the exhibition I could not help but feel melancholic as Reg Butler’s monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner (1955–6) came to mind. Butler’s proposal was selected as the result of an international sculpture competition sponsored by the ICA in London to design a monument to the unknown political prisoner, a theme intended ‘to pay tribute to those individuals who, in many countries and in diverse political situations, had dared to offer their liberty and their lives for the cause of human freedom.’ Not wanting to sound too maudlin, but given the consequences of China’s selective tolerance, Ai’s exhibition first expresses itself as a monument to a silenced political prisoner, imprisoned by the conventions of art. When he could deploy social media, Ai was politically and socially transformative, guiding his audience to actively determine their political futures, echoing the Ministry of Public Security’s order for the police to use microblogs to ‘guide public opinion’.

Ai Weiwei and curator Tessa Praun, photo by David Neuman

Ai Weiwei and curator Tessa Praun, photo by David Neuman

The paradox stings as you realize that this exhibition offers us some foresight into the impact his message will have now that he can ‘only’ be an artist, because there is a significant point to be made about the different voices we hear between his exhibitions and his earlier use of social media. Rather than call for political change on his blog, Ai consistently and directly asked for political morality. For example, following the disastrous Sichuan earthquake in 2008, in which children were buried alive in their schools (the result of what Ai attributes to their construction from substandard materials – known in China as tofu buildings), Ai blogged about the reaction of government bureaucrats: ‘They close their mouths and do not discuss corruption, they avoid the tofu-dregs construction [. . .] They conceal the facts, and in the name of “stability” they persecute, threaten and imprison the parents of the deceased children who are demanding to know the truth.’

This is the language of unambiguous realpolitik, where by comparison, his Sunflower Seeds (2009), like most of his art, are more poetic, purposefully left open to interpretation. When the government censored Ai’s name from the Internet, the sunflower seed became his proxy, and discussions about ‘sunflower seeds’ continued with the government helpless to crack down. And while that is another kind of strength, perhaps it is not the most advantageous for instigating the kind of political and social reform that would bring an Arab Spring to China.

Ai Weiwei, installation view, 2012, Magasin 3 Stockholm, Sweden

Ai Weiwei, installation view, 2012, Magasin 3 Stockholm, Sweden

This said, Praun has organized an exhibition with a commanding view of Ai’s career, including 11 works spanning six years. But what is especially poignant about this exhibition is the Ai Weiwei Reading Room situated amidst the exhibition and an exceptional website and blog devoted to the exhibition and Weiwei’s online activism, calculated to exhume his silenced voice.

Buttressing this is a remarkable programme of five panels with titles ranging from ‘The Power of the Microblogs – What is the Significance of Ai Weiwei and other Net Activists for Freedom of Speech in China?’ to ‘Freedom of Speech, Democracy, Human Rights – China in Relation to the Rest of the World’. Praun has been a strategic activist herself, making certain that the exhibition and the programming around it do their best to counteract the effects of the Chinese government’s deadening policy of selected tolerance.

'Ai Weiwei' installation view, 2012, Magasin 3, Stockholm, Sweden

'Ai Weiwei' installation view, 2012, Magasin 3, Stockholm, Sweden

Some of the work included is reminiscent of how freely Weiwei could act before April 2011, when he was arrested. In Fairytale (2007) he brought 1001 Chinese citizens of from ages 2 to 70 to Kassel, Germany to attend Documenta 12. This kind of calculated social intervention into the artistic sphere was a unique cross-cultural social experiment that immersed Chinese citizens in what had to have been a unique experience of freedom. The title Fairytale _was meant to resonate with thoughts of the Brothers Grimm, their life in Kassel, and their beloved fairytales like _Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. Surely, in 2007, the experience must have triggered feelings of enchantment, the supernatural, and magic; but now, six years later, it has explicitly become a morality tale of what seems today to be an unbelievable story from far away, and long ago.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine. 

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019

frieze magazine

November - December 2019