Ai Weiwei’s ability to strike a balance between art objects for aesthetic and intellectual contemplation on the one hand, and a sustained and forceful critique of the Chinese political establishment on the other, has made him a potent cultural and political force in recent years. Although his earlyworks, which featured a combination of Western minimalism and Chinese materials (painted ancient vessels, manipulated Chinese furniture), had implicit political undertones, they also functioned independently of political polemic. From 2008, his critical success as an artist gave him an audience to mount an effective political offensive against the Chinese government; the relative independence of that critique from his artistic practice gave it legitimacy. But as his international status has grown in direct proportion to reprisals on him by the Chinese authorities, his art work has gradually shifted toward a more explicit relationship with the political issues he campaigns about.
All of this led inexorably up to ‘Evidence’, the largest show of Ai’s work to date. Though he is an artist first and foremost, as the show’s curator, Gereon Sievernich, Director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, said in a New York Times interview: ‘He is always accused of being a political activist […] we took that charge and stood it on its head and fully embraced the political.’ ‘Evidence’ was split into two clear sections. One showcased Ai’s signature style, which marries the formal and serial devices of minimalism with ancient Chinese materials and modern China’s sense of scale. Examples of this kind of work included Stools (2014), 6,000 traditional stools collected from the Chinese countryside; Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint (2014), which needs no further description; and Very Yao (2009), a mesmerizing installation consisting of 150 bicycles based on his 2003 work Forever. The other section of the show featured his more recent and unambiguously political work.
Since 2008, Ai has been using social networks to create awareness of issues ranging from children killed by substandard public buildings during the Wenchuan earthquake to the execution of Yang Jia (an unemployed man from Beijing who, having previously suffered police brutality, killed six policemen after they wrongly accused him of having stolen a bike). Ai’s campaigns were embraced by a range of Chinese activists, increasing his threat as perceived by the Chinese authorities and culminating in his arrest in April 2011. This is well known, and the internet is awash with articles documenting and applauding Ai’s political activities. However, going through ‘Evidence’ room by room, I found something disquieting about his more recent political art. Apart from two rather weak pieces, both in marble – one a model of the disputed Diaoyu Islands (2014), and the other a sculpture of a gas mask on a tomb rather didactically highlighting China’s pollution issues (Mask, 2013) – all of the artist’s recent work is dedicated to describing his own suffering at the hands of the Chinese authorities. This includes: Surveillance Camera (2010), a marble replica of the surveillance cameras positioned by police outside his house; He Xie (2011), Souvenir from Shanghai (2012) and The Crab House (2012), all three regarding the government’s demolition of his Shanghai studio; IOU (2011–13), promissory notes commemorating money sent to Ai by netizens supporting him against the government’s tax evasion charges; Untitled (2011), office equipment confiscated from his studio during his captivity; Dumbass (2013), a satirical music video about his incarceration; Hanger (2013), plastic hangers in his prison cell replicated in stainless steel and crystal; Handcuffs (2013), jade replicas of the handcuffs used during his interrogations; and, last but not least, 81 (2014), the nasty-hotel-room-cum-prison-cell in which Ai was held captive, recreated down to the smallest detail in the exhibition hall.
Evidence is normally used to convince and prove to others a certain case in point, but if the remarkably popular campaigns to free Ai during his 81 days of captivity and international media reports are anything to go by, there seem to be very few people who need further convincing – certainly not the people who queued around the block to see this show. It appeared that all the ‘Evidence’ produced for this exhibition was designed to highlight the artist’s own suffering and thereby enhance his saint-like image, and this is cause for concern on two levels. Firstly, the focus of both Ai’s work and of those supporting him has shifted from China’s political issues to Ai himself – his head injury, his incarceration, the demolition of his studio, the confiscation of his passport – which has resulted in campaigns centred around him, or to be more precise, around his image. This shift of attention from wider issues to the individual appears to make Ai’s image a surrogate for social justice, and that perilously approaches the creation of a personality cult.
Secondly, Ai’s importance is based on the independent power of both his art and his political activism. The legitimacy of the former lends power to the latter. For his work Straight (2008–12) he straightened 150 tonnes of twisted steel rebar collected from destroyed schools at the site of the Wenchuan earthquake, an extraordinarily powerful metaphor for undoing injustices. In contrast, the rather self-centred recent work featured in ‘Evidence’ is too simplistic to function on a conceptual level and too literal to work on a formal level. Stainless steel replicas of plastic coat hangers displayed neatly in pristine exhibition vitrines only function to remind us of Ai’s suffering, but do not function as art works outside of this context. As such, they cannot constitute effective political statements in the long run, weakening his cause – if indeed this is to campaign for political justice in China.
As a longtime Beijing resident, I take Ai and his political persecution very seriously. He is one of the only people out of China’s vast population who publicly criticizes the Chinese authorities, creating something of a conundrum for them, as they seem to play into his hands regardless of what they do to him. This has created a unique situation with the potential to effect change on a cultural and political level in China. I just hope that Ai doesn’t start playing into their hands in return.