Ai Weiwei: Personal Art as Public Art


Last September in London, two days after we arrived for vacation, Ai Weiwei and fellow artist Anish Kapoor (known in America for his Cloud Gate sculpture, or “The Bean,” in Chicago) led an eight-mile walk from the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly to Kapoor’s artwork “Orbit” in Olympic Park at Stratford. The refugee problem seemed to have suddenly exploded upon Europe, and the two artists believed they had to make a statement in support of the refugees. They were joined by about 100 fellow marchers and, according to The Guardian, about as many journalists.

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Cao (Grass) 2014

“Everything is art. Everything is politics,” Ai Weiwei once said. He knows of what he speaks. His life and his art have often been ensnared in Chinese government politics. The march across London was two days before the Ai Weiwei exhibition opened at the Royal Academy. Only a few weeks before had the Chinese government granted him the right to travel to London for the exhibition.

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Fragments (2005)

My introduction to Ai Weiwei and his art occurred in the bookshop of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Only vaguely aware of the China/Ai Weiwei controversy, I happened upon his Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009 during a visit in 2011. In 2006, the Chinese government had encouraged him to start a blog, and he did. What no one expected was how popular it would become, both in China and around the world. And the government certainly didn’t expect the artist to be as candid (and opinionated) as he was.

In 2009, Chinese authorities shut down his blog. Since then, he’s endured arrest, surveillance, and harassment, none of which has stopped him from speaking out. Ai Weiwei is not the only artist or citizen who’s been persecuted by the Chinese government (consider the current crackdown on Christian churches in the country), but he is likely the best known globally.

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Janet in front of “Tree” (2009-2010)

My first direct exposure to Ai Weiwei’s art was at Blenheim Palace in 2014. The palace of the Duke of Marlborough is one of those architectural treasures that are simply awe-inspiring – the house itself is seven acres under roof. It’s also the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and he’s buried nearby at St. Martin’s Church in Bladon.

In 2014, Ai Weiwei had an exhibition at Blenheim, but it was not in special show galleries. A friend met us at the Oxford train station and together we drove to Blenheim. Instead, it was spread throughout the property, from a huge chandelier in the entrance foyer to ceramic crabs in one of the ornate 18th century furnished rooms to a ceramic video camera in the library. It was jarring to see the juxtaposition of Ai Weiwei’s art with the architecture and furnishings of the palace, but that was likely the point.

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Bicycle Chandelier (2015)

His art is simultaneously personal and public, and “public” is often synonymous with “political.” It’s meant to call attention, not only to the artist but what the artist is saying. It’s often jarring and provocative but is always thought-provoking.

The 2015 Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London included some of the artworks from Blenheim but added a considerable number of others. The show as classic Ai Weiwei: the ceramic crabs from Blenheim were clustered in a corner; one room contained hundreds of pieces of rebar assembled in a wave; a poster of names and ages recorded the lives of the children who died when a school collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. (I took the four photos included here during my visit to the exhibition.)

Ai Weiwei Royal Academy

Exhibition Catalog

He often uses discarded and waste materials, a kind of artistic recycling project. Several of the pieces at the Royal Academy were representative of that, using castoff metal, wood and other materials.

The exhibition catalog, simply entitled Ai Weiwei, is an excellent introduction to both the artist and the exhibition. In addition to the book collecting his blog posts, two other helpful resources are Ai Weiwei Speaks, an extensive interview with curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Weiwei-isms edited by Larry Warsh, a collection of his statements on art, freedom, government, the digital world, history, and other topics.

Ai Weiwei’s statements for the refugees continue. Recently, he wrapped the columns of the Berlin Concert Hall with the discarded life preservers used by hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing on boats.

“My activism is part of me,” he says. “ If my art has anything to do with me, then my activism is part of my art.” For Ai Weiwei, the personal is the public is the political, because that is where he comes from.

Top photograph: Ai Weiwei demonstrating what the artist does bet – looking and seeing.

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I sit on Millionaire’s Row

I sit on Millionaire’s Row,
what’s left of it,
my German accent barely noticeable,
the cries from parades of grief
moving through my doors
now calmed. I sit
in a magnificent silence,
the only sounds
the chips of mortar chisels,
the grunts of thieves of brick,
the rustle of architects’ paper,
whispering redevelopment,
murmuring tear-down. 

Photograph: The Winkelmann mansion in 2009, by Preservation Research St. Louis. To see its current condition, please visit St. Louis Patina. The mansion was built in 1873, by a “new money” German wholsesale grocery merchant named Bernhard Winkelmann. Between its glory days in the 19th century and the near-destruction today, it served as a funeral home.

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More than a memory

Dewey defeated Truman here,
or so the paper said, the one
held up by a triumphant smile
at the back of a rail car. Millions
had blurred through in war-time
urgency, not seeing a future
of biking rails, not rail lines,
of airplanes, not passenger trains,
of shopping centers, not edifices
of architectural majesty. Still,
it endures, thrusting up from
its concrete bed, almost a fist
shaking in the wind,
more than a memory,
less than a reality.

Thanks to Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina for his post on the Illinois Central Railroad Trestle that inspired this poem.

Photograph: An Illinois Central passenger train leaving St. Louis Union Station in the 1950s.

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In hot sunshine’s last gleaming
it rests, this nod to the past, this
hope to a future that didn’t happen
except in imaginations, and dreams,
but it sits nonetheless, a stately repose
as its necklace of pods carry us
upward to look east to the past
to look west to the past,
to look down at the present, and
though it rests we sense
a restlessness, or the movement
of the river below.

Photograph: Core of Discovery St. Louis.

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Kerri Webster’s “Grand & Arsenal: Poems”

The intersection of Grand and Arsenal in the city of St. Louis is one part park, three parts commercial. Arsenal Street actually does a little zigzag as it crosses Grand and then runs the length of Tower Grove Park, which is due south of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Like so much of the city of St. Louis, the residential buildings in the area are red brick.

“Grand & Arsenal” is also the title of a new collection of poetry by Kerri Webster, former writer-in-residence at Washington University. There’s a review of the collection today over at TweetSpeak Poetry.

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Feeding koi

Flashes, splashes of gold
orange yellow white black
punctuated by plaintive
open mouths, jostling
and competing for bits
of compacted pellets
(25 cents per serving)
(what a deal) (even if of
unknown nutritional value)
delighting both a child
and the child within.

Photograph: Grandfather and grandson feeding koi at St. Louis Union Station, April 8, 2012, by Stephanie Young.

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Interstate 44

Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina has a post today entitled “The Death of Central St. Louis.” It’s well worth reading; it looks at the stretch of the City of St. Louis between Interstates 64/40 and 44between Lafayette Square and Kingshighway. What few knew when they were built, we all know now: highways form barriers; highways divide. 

In 2010, Tim Lee at Bottom-up had a similar post, “Freeways and the Decline of St. Louis.” It’s worth reading, too. (Note that the older posts are archived but Lee’s blog has moved to Forbes and is now called “Disruptive Economics.”) 

Interstate 44 

It’s progress, it is, and
not all progress is bad but
the  total cost is rarely calculated
in the configuration of concrete
and beams, pavement and bridges,
archways and signage and lamps
engineered and designed perfectly
but the other cost is there, nonetheless,
and usually identified long after, when
The Hill is split and Webster Groves
divided and neighborhoods
isolated and displaced so that schools
and factories and office buildings
become tombstones for what once was.
Once there was life in this moonscape.

Photograph: The construction of the connection of Interstates 44 and 55 in St. Louis. Photographer unknown.  Source: Preservation Research Office.

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