Sun, Aug 16, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Truth to power

Ai Weiwei’s public discontent is an anomaly in the no-politics world of Chinese contemporary art


But Ai Qing’s position as a rising poet laureate could not weather Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) lifelong distaste for intellectuals. When Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, he and around half a million other educated types were punished, “because he couldn’t continue to support the party,” explained Ai. He went into exile, first to Manchuria, then to Xinjiang, where he spent more than 20 years and raised Weiwei and his other children. “One of the jobs he had was cleaning public toilets. For a man like this, you can imagine what that must have meant,” said Ai.

“We never had an exchange of political opinions,” recalled Ai. “I think if I was influenced by him, it’s that he was a very independent person.”

Ai Qing was officially rehabilitated by the Communist Party in 1976 following Mao’s death, and he subsequently brought his family back to Beijing. Ai Weiwei became involved in what would become China’s first contemporary art movement, the Stars Group, with whom he showed some traditional Chinese ink paintings. Then in 1981, he moved to New York, vowing to never return.

The New York years, Ai sarcastically noted, “was a time of learning how capitalism and imperialism worked.”

He also soaked up Western art history, taking Marcel Duchamp as a starting point then tracing a lineage that ran from Dada to Pop Art and Conceptual Art. His personal ideas of bringing together found objects, or readymades, and Chinese antiques, however, had not yet come into its own. When his father took ill in 1993, he decided to return to China.

“I’ve never hesitated in making big decisions in a very short time,” said Ai. “When I returned to China, I didn’t have a US passport, a wife or a university degree. From the Chinese point of view, I was a total failure.”

Back in Beijing, Ai plunged into the antique markets, and promptly began turning artifacts into art by defacing or destroying them. He scrawled Coca Cola logos on several 2,000-year-old vases, and one such vase he destroyed altogether in the performance Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Western galleries and collectors took notice. At the same time, his architecture and design studio also began to take off.

Antiques, said Ai, “exist as evidence of the cultural tracks we made in the past.”

“We need to get out of the old language,” he continued, by way of explaining his iconoclast tendencies. “The language of communication will always need to be renewed.”


It was not until relatively recently however that Ai’s art began to take on a social dimension. In 2007, for Documenta, one of the most eminent exhibitions in contemporary art, he — with the help of his gallery and sponsors — bought plane tickets for 1,001 Chinese nationals and brought them to Germany as part of a work called Fairytale. It was a grand gesture of affirmative action, a statement that an international exhibition should have a truly international audience, not just predominantly Western visitors who could afford the trip.

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