Jan 25 2013

Book Blog: Weiwei-isms

by Sylvia Tsai

Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei. Edited by Larry Warsh. Published by Princeton University Press, 2012. Photo by Ann Woo, ArtAsiaPacific.

Don’t let the size fool you. Ai Weiwei’s “little black book” will leave a lasting impression. Weiwei-isms is a volume of truisms by one of the most significant albeit, controversial artists practicing today. 

This book contains a collection of statements made by Ai in newspaper articles, the artist’s Twitter posts and media interviews, which the editor Larry Warsh (who also happens to have one of the largest holdings of Ai’s work), with the help of Ai Weiwei’s studio associates, organized into six themes: Freedom of Expression; Art and Activism; Government, Power, and Making Moral Choices; Digital World; History, Historical Moment, and the Future; and Personal Reflections.

Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a well-respected poet who was imprisoned for his political activities during the Cultural Revolution. One can say that Ai Weiwei followed in his father’s footsteps and assumed the role of a political activist through his creative practice. Ai began his artistic career by joining the avant-garde art collective, Stars, which formed during the post-Mao years to speak out for individuality and artistic freedom.  His conviction towards these concepts continues to underlie his works and the way he lives his life.

In 2000, Ai co-curated “Fuck Off,” which was a counter exhibition that ran alongside the Shanghai Biennale. The intention of the Biennale was to showcase the best of Chinese contemporary art to the international community, but for Ai, the exhibition was just another platform for the government to promote an artificial façade of progress and openness to foreigners. Due to the provocative and controversial nature of the works in “Fuck Off,” the Shanghai police closed the exhibition down early. 

One also can’t forget the artist’s 81 days in jail. In April 2011, Ai was arrested at the Beijing airport for alleged tax evasion and incomplete departure documents. The artist was later sentenced to house arrest, and prohibited to leave Beijing for a year. All these circumstances did not intimidate or silence the artist; on the contrary, they instigated Ai to speak out more about the treatment of the government, individual rights and freedom, and need for social change.

“For him, this struggle is a ‘war of words,’ and his own words—spoken, written, or tweeted—are ‘like a bullet out of the gun,’” states the editor Larry Warsh in the introduction. “Ai Weiwei repeatedly points out, and centuries of history attest, human rights and freedom of expression are not set by anyone’s agenda. They are inalienable rights, central to what makes us human.”

Short, concise quotations from the artist have been extracted, making his “-isms” an easy read. However, the significance behind these words requires more time and contemplation. For example, Ai’s comments regarding freedom of expression include, “In an environment without public platform nor protection, the individual is the most powerful and most responsible.”

On activism and art Ai states, “It became like a symbolic thing, to be ‘an artist.’ After Duchamp, I realized that being an artist is more about a lifestyle and attitude than producing some product.”

“The government may be made up of clever, sensible people. But if they do not believe in basic human values, the more clever or shrewd they are the greater the tragedy they will create,” says the artist regarding the government.

Physically, this book is small and convenient to carry. In this way, it refers to another iconic piece of Chinese literature of similar format: Chairman Mao Zedong’s collection of quotations, otherwise known in the West as the “Little Red Book.” By referencing the appearance of the key text of the Chinese Communist Party, Ai cleverly flips its message to one that encourages action, thought and individuality.