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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.