Ai WeiWei may be more famous for his acts of dissidence than his art, but a North American exhibit of his work could be a sign that China has (grudgingly) made some progress.
To the West, he’s the famous “Chinese dissident artist” at the centre of the 2012 documentary Never Sorry, an illegal detainee who spent 81 days in 2011 in a Beijing “black jail” on trumped-up tax evasion charges. To those who’ve followed his trajectory a bit more closely, he’s a social-media sage (at least, before he was banned from China’s equivalent of Twitter), an affable trickster who posts “Gangnam Style” parodies while under extreme surveillance, and, more recently, the Renaissance man who made a heavy-metal album. He’s a thorn in the side of the Chinese state, often called our most important living artist, but many people wouldn’t be able to name a single work by Ai Weiwei.
His notoriety as an activist might suggest that Western audiences have a larger appetite for stories of heroic dissidence than things that hang in galleries, but for Ai, the two are inseparable. (“Everything is art. Everything is politics,” is a favourite aphorism.) The intersection between those passions is made clear in “According to What?,” his first North American retrospective, which makes its Canadian debut at the Art Gallery of Ontario on August 17. The show takes its name from a painting by Jasper Johns, the celebrated American pop artist whose work highlights everyday icons like numbers, targets, and the American flag. The title may be pilfered, but in Ai’s hands, “According to What?” becomes a question about authority: “According to what measure? According to whose rule?”
Though freedom of expression has long been a theme of Ai’s work, he cemented the particular pitch and tenor of his dissent during a 12-year stint in New York City. In 1981, a 24-year-old Ai left China, where books on contemporary art weren’t available because they weren’t being translated. He landed smack dab in the middle of Warhol’s New York during the heyday of the legendary and now defunct grimy rock club CBGB, beloved by acts like the Ramones and the Talking Heads. He photographed protests in Tompkins Square Park. He met Allen Ginsberg. Many of the pieces included in “According to What?” revel in that subversive sentiment. Five pictures from Ai’s “Study of Perspective” series (1995–2003) are included in the exhibit: Tiananmen, Eiffel Tower, Rome, White House, and Beijing, each of which features Ai’s middle finger directed squarely at the landmark centre-frame.
His work often balances rock ’n’ roll irreverence with a deep respect for his heritage. For Grapes (2010), he joined 40 antique wooden stools into a kind of hemisphere, using only traditional Chinese joinery techniques. This balance between iconoclasm and a reverence for tradition says something about how Ai sees his place in contemporary China. He must work from within the system; he wouldn’t be as effective in exile. As Dr. Alison Bailey, a scholar from the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, explains, “Ai Weiwei is very much a product and a privileged member of the state in some ways.” His father, a celebrated communist poet, was condemned as a “rightist” and exiled to northeast China in 1958. Though his father was permitted to return to Beijing in 1979, Ai grew up aware that the party had an awful temper.
Several works in “According to What?” deal with Ai’s response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which killed more than 5,000 children because of the shoddy construction of their schoolhouses—something the government went to great lengths to conceal. There’s a three-hour-and-41-minute audio installation that lists the names of all of the young victims. There’s a snake made of children’s backpacks attached to the AGO’s ceiling, a kind of requiem for the souls of those who died. It’s this work that’s gotten him in the most trouble.
At a time when the U.S. and China have come together to talk about human rights, Ai is an invaluable porthole into China’s social woes and the climate of dissent—in more ways than one. It’s notable, for instance, that such an outspoken critic hasn’t been more permanently disappeared, like the activists around the time of Tiananmen Square. He could also be a sign that the genie’s out of the bottle: In China’s increasing openness to capitalism and globalizing technologies, a character like Ai Weiwei may be impossible to suppress.
UBC’s Bailey suggests that standing up to a totalitarian regime is something we tend to romanticize in the West. Still, she says this summer has been coloured by a growing discontent among members of the middle class in China, who’ve staged protests against government corruption, land grabbing, and rampant industrial pollution. That undercurrent of unrest is what Ai has been amplifying for years. That we get to know his work better, even in his absence, confirms that Ai has become an international symbol of dissent, and moreover, as skilled a propagandist as the government against which he’s fighting.
“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” runs from Aug. 17 to Oct. 27 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 317 Dundas St. W., 416-979-6648, ago.net.