The Freedom of Irreverence

Ai Weiwei


China’s opening to the West in the 1990s was fueled by the government’s desire for economic expansion and the establishment of a commodity-based culture. That nascent market era has stimulated the growth of contemporary art in China, with artists—no longer fringe renegades and now something akin to entrepreneurs—displaying increasing sophistication and professionalization in how they manage their careers.

The year 2000 was a key turning point for China as the Shanghai Museum of Art transformed its Shanghai Biennale into China’s first major international art exhibition. The move signaled the government’s engagement with a new policy of strategic cultural diplomacy and the sponsorship of subsequent showcases of contemporary Chinese artists such as “Alors la Chine” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of the Year of China in France in 2003 and the nation’s first official participation in the Venice Biennale in 2005. In line with these moves, in 2005 the government also announced plans to build 1,000 new museums by the year 2015, further evidence of how proliferating state cultural institutions are appropriating the power and value of contemporary art to promote an image of cultural openness and engagement with the West.

Resisting this trend, some artists have defined themselves in opposition to the institutional appropriation of art. Their need to establish a relative autonomy and control over the conditions of artistic practice and production can be accounted for by the lack of professional institutions in China until now, as well as the lack of a public sphere independent of the pressures of the state and market in shaping views over matters of value and taste in contemporary art. For Ai Weiwei this need for an independent position has led him to establish a collaborative network of operation that resists specialization and professionalization. As an artist, photographer, designer, architect, writer, curator, publisher, producer and founder of art organizations and a design studio, his work remains characterized both by its conceptual framework and is irreverence. Speaking to students at Cornell University in the US in 2006 about his work as an artistic consultant for the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron’s “bird’s nest” 2008 Beijing Olympics National Stadium, he remarked, “To design a stadium requires as much passion as to design a toilet seat . . . It’s very important to used all possible means to express your ideas . . . I try not to guide myself: I try to, day to day, accept all the opportunities and to make a mark.”

The son of Ai Qing, one of China’s most respected modern poets, Ai grew up in remote Xinjiang after his father was exiled there in the anti-rightist campaigns of the late 1950s. In the post-Mao thaw of 1978, he moved to Beijing, enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy and became a founding member of the early avant-garde Stars Group. Ai left for New York in 1981, where he studied at the Parsons School of Design and continued making art. Returning to Beijing in 1993, he became a member of the East Village artist community of the early 1990s, and co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse in 1997 to showcase experimental art in China.

It comes as no surprise then that in 2000, when the Shanghai Biennale went international, Ai was waiting in the wings. Together with critic and curator Feng Boyi, he organized a counter exhibition entitled “Fuck Off,” or toned-down in Chinese, “Bu Hezuo Fangshi (An Uncooperative Approach).” Held at the artist-run EASTLINK Gallery and a warehouse on West Suzhou Creek Road, the exhibition included a diverse group of artists. Some of the performance- and installation-based work earned notoriety for its use of animal and human body parts. The Shanghai police shut down the exhibition before the closing date and the media’s critical response condemned the exhibition as an exercise in sensationalism, symptomatic of the moral bankruptcy of contemporary Chinese society.

The fact that Ai and Feng selected mostly Beijing artists for a Shanghai even t invokes the long-standing differences between the two cities, with the financial center Shanghai serving as a nexus between communist China and the commodity-oriented Wets, and Beijing serving as the seat of the political establishment and the radical intellectual engagement of issues within China. Ultimately, “Fuck Off” has proven more significant than the Shanghai Biennale in crystallizing the concerns and issues of artists working at that moment of transition.

Indeed, the “Fuck Off” catalog remains a lasting document, providing unique insight into Ai’s own conception of his work as an artist in China. In the preface, Ai and Feng attack cultural vulgarization and compromise with any “system of power.” They embrace the need to “provoke artists’ responsibility and self-discipline, search for the way in which art lives as ‘wild-life.’” For them, this “critical stance is basic to art existence, and its status of independence, freedom and plurality.”

Ai then presents his own “artist’s statement,” comprised of two fictional texts written in the voices of Mao Zedong and Marcel Duchamp, respectively. The first, attributed to Mao’s “The Tasks of the Revolutionary Culture in the Special Historic Phase” (1942), reads: “Those comrades who are firm and determined in today’s ideological struggles and those who have no fear of power and no compromise with vulgarization will be the hope of tomorrow’s new culture.” The second statement, by Duchamp, reads simply: “It’s just my own game. Nothing else.”

The texts complement and challenge each other. The first directs itself out towards the Chinese people while the second rebounds towards the individual.  By “quoting” Mao and Duchamp, Ai revives their iconic authority in the present, but also disavows adherence to any one position—neither political insurgent nor art anarchist. The citation of these two figures is an extension of Ai’s 1980s conceptual practice in New York: he painted a series of portraits of Mao recalling Andy Warhol’s silk-screen mass-media appropriations, while the readymade Hanging Man (1985) was a clothes hanger elegantly bent to resemble the profile of Duchamp. In the 1980s, these works took a stand against New York’s market-driven art world. The mere invocation of Mao and Duchamp in the context of the Shanghai Biennale challenged the authority that state-sponsored art events such as biennials hold over the legitimization of artists. What mattered less to Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi was what artists they included. What mattered more was the right of the artists to express themselves freely through their work.

In the catalog, a picture of Ai himself, middle finger extended towards the viewer, accompanies the texts by Mao and Duchamp. This gesture reappears in the reproduction of two works from the “Study of Perspective” photo series (1995–96) showing the artist against the background of various landmarks, in this instance Tiananmen Square and the White House. The simple manual gesture interrupts the iconic authority invested in each site. The “perspective” provided by the finger is no longer simply a formal measure of the subject but rather suggests the parallel role that buildings play as the symbolic measure of politicized urban space. Ai’s reproduction of these two works commemorates his own relationship to the US as well as the complex relations between the two countries.

Ai also includes two recent bodies of work using Neolithic and Han dynasty ceramics (1994– ), and Ming and Qing furniture (1997– ). The ceramics series, which includes porcelain vases, entails either shattering antique pots and recording the act as an artistic performance, or transforming them through the garish application of household paint. The furniture series dislocates the traditional function of tables and chairs as ritual or ornamental objects by re-crafting them into impractical but elegant assemblages. The furniture series has further evolved and now appropriates abandoned elements of temple architecture such as wooden pillars and beams.

The ceramics series’ significance lies in the scandalous nature of destroying a “precious” antique. But Ai’s action serves as a way of questioning and deconstructing the judgment and authority of a system in which “national treasures” are nothing more than ordinary household items of cultures made obsolete by state sanctioned destruction and unregulated looting. Part of this series included decorating a Han dynasty urn with a hand-painted Coca-Cola logo, continuing as before his deconstructive gesture, inaugurated by Duchamp and Warhol, of art and the commodification of culture.

Similarly, the furniture series works through a procedure of destruction and reinvention that, while drawing attention to the extraordinary skill and refinement of the original craftsmanship, produces a nonfunctional object. The resulting meaninglessness mimics and mocks any value attributed to the object as little more than symbolic capital. Moreover, while divesting these works of their original institutional value, Ai has produced a substantial body of work that can be regarded either as valueless fakes or works of art.

The final image of Ai’s “Fuck-Off” entry gives the coup de grace to his imminent critique of the Shanghai Biennale and, more generally, issues of power and value in Chinese culture today. Entitled Gold Distribution, the image is a reproduction of a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, showing a group of Chinese people who, with startled anxious faces, jostle against one another to hold their places in a queue. It was taken in Shanghai in 1949, the year the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China.

In this context, Ai Weiwei’s crafting of the texts by Mao and Duchamp underscores what he sees as the dangers of the present situation in which Chinese artists are caught shuttling between the market and the State. However, it also offers a means of negotiating a space in which to operate between the radical individualism symbolized by Duchamp and the radical collectivity symbolized by Mao. In this third space, Ai critically exercises the freedom of artistic practice while subverting the self-legitimating power of iconicity. True to form, Ai made waves last year when he compiled mock surveillance footage of a visiting group of trustees from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which he turned into an artwork, Surveillance Video at the MoMA Visit (2006). Even as Chinese art has gained acceptance at the highest echelons of the global art hierarchy, Ai maintains a practice of iconoclasm and irreverence.