Li Xianting and Zhang Yihe: Ai Weiwei Is a Creative Artist

Li Xianting is an independent art critic and curator of contemporary Chinese art. He was actively involved with introducing avant-garde art forms to China in the 1970s and 80s and is frequently described as the Godfather of Contemporary Art in China. Currently he is the Director of the Songzhuang Art Museum in Beijing. Zhang Yihe is known as one of the most famous and controversial authors in China. She has published a series of best-selling historic books including the Past Has Never Gone, and Old Stories of Peking Opera Actors that have been popular among the global Chinese community but were banned on the mainland. Also as a daughter of Zhang Bojun, who was named No.1 rightist in China during the Anti-rightist campaign created by Mao Zedong in 1957, she was jailed for ten years by the Chinese Communist Party and was released in 1979 after being rehabilitated. She now lives in Beijing as an opera researcher and writer. In 2007, she started a campaign, joined by mainland liberals and writers, to campaign against the Chinese publication authorities’ order to ban her book.

Zhang and Li wrote the following essay about imprisoned artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Translated by Vivian Wu (Read the original Chinese here):

Ai Weiwei Is a Creative Artist

By Li Xianting and Zhang Yihe

In the summer of 1957, Gao Ying was pregnant. But she was planning an abortion because her marriage (in all but name) with Ai Qing was the focus of criticism and was being severely punished. But Ai Qing insisted on keeping the baby. He said, “This is a work by both of us. Maybe it will be a masterpiece.” [1]

This baby was named Ai Weiwei, and indeed, it was a masterpiece. We have abundant reason to say: Ai Weiwei is a creative artist, as well as an art curator and social activist who is guided by love, conscience, and a sense of social responsibility.

I first got to know Ai Weiwei during the Star Exhibition in 1980, after seeing several of his water landscape oil paintings. The paintings showed picturesque scenes commonly seen in China’s water towns. Very fluid lines sketched the contours of residences and the river’s course. The coloring especially was not of a conventional sketching style; rather, it resembled the Chinese literati Southern School. The color was added after outlining. His lines were neither constrained by the rules of conventional color application nor the structure of the physical image. Rather, several lines of blue were painted in bold brushstrokes. We were so impressed by his boldness and casualness, and his pursuit of the transformation of Chinese painting elements.

Later, Ai Weiwei went to the US, and we heard no news of him. Until the early and mid-1990s, when we were in contact with the artists in Beijing’s East Village, we learned that he had provided a great deal of help to artists facing difficulties. He also paid for the publication of Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995) and Grey Cover Book (1997) with his own money, to introduce artists’ works, especially performance art in the East Village. Actually, in those days, the entire Chinese art world was still in a period of deep freeze. Artists Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming were both arrested because of their performance art. So the three books undoubtedly helped bond and encourage the artist community. More than that, the first information about Chinese performance art was passed on to many western art museums and critics through these albums free of charge. “Talent and intelligence, no gallants could compare to him. Draw back, he has thousands of wonderful plans.” [2] After this, Ai Weiwei devoted himself widely to various fields and has been active as an independent curator, arts promoter, social activist, architect and artist in Chinese and international arts communities.

With Swiss collector Uli Sigg, Ai Weiwei co-founded the Annual Young Artist Award and invited critics from China and abroad to join the judges’ panel. Though we don’t think the Award had a significant impact on the development of Chinese contemporary art, it provided a reference for the future development in the international arena and expanded Chinese artists’ aesthetic judgments of contemporary art. He co-founded China Art Archives & Warehouse with the late Dutch curator Hans Van Dijk and promoted exhibitions of many contemporary avant-garde Chinese artists. Spanning a decade, the CAAW has played a remarkable role promoting the development of Chinese contemporary art. Almost at the same time, he established his own studio, together with the studios he designed for other artists, became the earliest groundbreaking work of the Caochangdi Art District. Nowadays Caochangdi Art District is one of the most active art districts in Beijing; without a doubt, his was a banner project. Furthermore, he did remarkable work to promote China’s contemporary art overseas. In 2007, he was curator of an exhibition “Mahjong” at Musée Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum), which was an overview of Contemporary Chinese art during the past decade. He is no doubt a bridge helping the European art circle to understand milestones of China’s contemporary art development.

Ai Weiwei designed a large number of architectural works, and of course the world knows that he was the artistic consultant for the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium. What is worth stressing is that in the design, he created a combination of red and gray bricks- common materials in Chinese traditional architecture, with the modern concrete in a miscellaneous tangle. The combination has a striking visual effect that reveals both the traditional intricate texture and modern simplicity. This style later became Ai Weiwei’s symbolic design and won him a reputation both in China and global architecture fields. Especially in “the Dining Hall project in the Jinhua Architectural Art Park”, his design solved lighting and other functional problems. Fiber cement board and glass were cut into the wall and were assembled into irregularly-shaped exterior curtain walls. The interior walls and furniture were all assembled of various materials in diverse formats. Ai Weiwei’s attempt at simple construction with cheap materials is so unique and inspiring amid the insane and extravagant urbanization.

As an artist, Ai Weiwei was deeply influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. But if we take a broader view of the developing path of contemporary art since the early 1900s, no artist has not benefited from these two mentors. They radically changed the identity of contemporary artists from craftsperson to public intellectual, thereby differentiating them from traditional artists. Specifically, wisdom and ideology, interpretation of cultural and social incidents, mockery, incitement, parody and irony in the modes of expression, and the figurative interpretation of existing articles in daily life — all these originated from the inspiration of daily life. It’s the feeling, love and unchained will of an artist based on his living status and position in the public sphere. It’s neither indulgence in self-recognition as a traditional literati nor the meticulous but minute technical details as a craftsman. Regardless of art’s social position and love, or the vision and approach, nearly a hundred years of contemporary art’s accumulated experience has challenged traditional art. So without such basic principles established over the past century in the contemporary art field, any attempt to evaluate and understand Ai Weiwei and the revolutionary development of contemporary art will be in vain.

Among his most controversial works, there are “parodies” of the masterpieces in Western art history. For example, his work “Foundation of Light,” exhibited at Tate Liverpool, is apparently a parody of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Tatlin had made three models of the Monument to the Third International in 1920, 1924 and 1925. All three models were five or six meters high. In the center of the structure was a core consisting of a cube and cylinder, both made of glass; the interior of the building included many functional design elements. If constructed, The Monument was to be twice the height of the 318-meter-high Empire State in New York, the highest building in the 1920s. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International existed only in model form, but the idea and the model were both impressive. The proposal was regarded as a work of architecture commemorating the Communist revolution, so the design became a symbol of constructivism and utilitarianism. Ai Weiwei’s design “The Fountain of Light”, is a large-scale chandelier of steel and crystal. It is seven meters high and its pedestal’s diameter is six meters. To understand and interpret this work, one must first borrow the interpretation of Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International”. Or we should say Weiwei’s “The Fountain of Light” and Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” have a corresponding relationship in the context of the history of international communism, so the audience sees the two works have corresponding social implications. The chandelier and foundation in Weiwei’s “Fountain of Light” directly connect us to the clumsy “lighting project” and “square fountains” erected all over China in its urbanization process. Or if we look at the two works in an historical perspective, they become an exaggerated satire of international communism.

Using different materials and textures from those in the original artistic masterpieces can be a way to parody or mock, and hence create a new meaning in a new context. For example, the caricature that adds a moustache on the face of Mona Lisa is based on the original version of The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous masterpiece, and this is the primary condition for the works’ connotation. There are numerous works such as this in the wave of American pop art in the 1960s. Another example is Roy Lichtenstein’s “Masterpiece” whose images were borrowed from popular cartoons from the 1950s in the US. Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and silk screened portraits of Marilyn Monroe are world famous. In the 1980s and 1990s, more masterpieces were subject to parody. Chinese artists, like artists in other countries, have created many works following this momentum. Those who criticized Weiwei for plagiarizing in some of his works, were actually ignorant of art history. Weiwei’s “A Ton Of Tea” (exhibited at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo) is a parody of “Not Art/Goods!”, a cube made by Johannes Stüttgen and others using 100 kilograms of honey to commemorate Joseph Beuys, and it is known by everybody that this idea is based on the “Honey Pump in the Workplace” and “Chair with Grease.” Especially “Chair with Grease” is a three-dimensional object with an angular surface and this inspired Stüttgen and his colleagues to build a cube of 100 kilograms of honey to commemorate Beuys. Thus there is the possibility of forming a correspondence between two sculptures, on both the model and the texture. So Ai Weiwei replaces material and volume, but the message conveyed to the audience will show the contrast between the material of tea and the huge volume weighing one ton. The 100-kilograms of honey symbolizes Beuys spirit, but what does a ton of tea represent in Chinese culture? Such a relationship between the two will certainly create a new contrast and association of ideas.

In fact, Ai Weiwei has been longing to find new meaning in the adaptation of traditional Chinese textures and structures, and he is especially obsessed with rosewood and the mortise and tenon joints that are commonly found in traditional Chinese furniture. His Huanghuali wood sculptures Divina Proportion (the bigger one, with a 2.5 meter diameter, exhibited in Mori Tokyo, and the smaller one, with a 1.7 meter diameter, exhibited in Haus De Kunst in Munich) presents a giant wood soccer ball ten times the size of the real soccer ball. Huanghuali wood, a luxurious Chinese red wood, was exquisitely carved into an extravagant structure, thereby creating a sensory combination of absurdness and reality. Chinese soccer fans are obsessed with the sport with a nationalist expectation that it could win China honor as a super power. But in reality, they are repeatedly disappointed by the mediocre performance of Chinese soccer teams. Psychologically, such disappointment reflects a psychological tendency to link the victory of Chinese soccer to a symbol of China’s prosperity as a superpower. Weiwei’s soccer sculpture, its powerful structure and meticulously tender red wood technique, represents the contrast between the power of soccer and the delicacy of red wood antiques. His similar famous works include the Huanghuali wood sculpture “Map of China” and “Cubic Meter Tables,” 2009 which is a parody of a cubic design by Sol LeWitt, 1991. Under the principles of minimalism, Ai Weiwei cares only about texture and structure; he simply wants to stress full attention on the aesthetic sensibility of the beautiful wood and the nail-free furniture joinery techniques.

The Zodiac Heads went on display last week in New York. Weiwei’s design is a parody based on a famous water clock designed by European Jesuits for the Western-style gardens of the Summer Palace during the reign of Manchu emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. The originals, with the western-style gardens, were looted in 1860 at the end of the Opium War by French and English troops, which has never been forgotten in China. Some of the Zodiac heads were retrieved from the west by Chinese companies with an enormous amount of capital, although almost all antique experts thought the deal wasn’t worth the money. But the patriotic news actually became the best advertisement for the companies involved. Based on this background, Ai Weiwei designed this circle of Zodiac Heads. All the twelve heads are made in cast copper and gilt bronze, 3-meters high, almost ten times larger than the originals. When twelve giant shiny gold zodiac heads confront the audience, they imply a message that Ai might just want to tell the world: that the luxurious fabrication of the dozen heads, just like that expensive “patriotic buy-back”, is totally a joke. What is more interesting is that this isn’t yet the end of the story. If the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art plans to collect this circle of heads in the US, that means Weiwei is selling a set of duplicates that were in no case created using Chinese aesthetics and sold to foreigners who would like to collect at a price. Then, which way is more patriotic? Who is more intelligent? The buy-back of the looted original Zodiac Heads by Chinese companies or Ai Weiwei?

Of course, the most offensive part about Ai Weiwei in some people’s eyes is his series of actions. In fact, in our point of view, Ai Weiwei has never been a politician, although some of his behavior indeed contains political elements. But that is art, performance art or event art. Besides, performance art by its nature is freedom in life’s activities, and acts of artistic creation often go beyond people’s general understanding and senses in ordinary life. This will naturally lead to aloofness from or clashes with the state ideological apparatus, and furthermore have the nature of defamation, rebellion and defiance. Therefore, we must hereby make a solemn statement that politics is an activity with an agenda, objects and organization, but Ai’s behavior or the events he designed are not political campaigns. Rather, they are aimed at expressing emotional and sensory feeling as an individual. His behavior and events are of a certain public nature, and his works in this category are somehow creative.

A review of the history of China’s performance art will be necessary here to help elaborate our statement. It has gone through four phases. The first phase is from 1985 to 1987 when cultural criticism was fermented in the whole society. Performance art was usually conducted in the sites of cultural symbolic meanings, such as the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Artists bound themselves up, suggesting the suppression on individual expression. The second phase lasted until the early 1990s, and was featured with waves of events and popular art. This was related to the culture of consumption and commercialism. Rock and roll, pop music, popular painting all presented a political irony. For example, there were performances symbolizing social behavior during the Mao Era. Artists acted as Lei Feng [a well-known army solder who personified altruism in the 1960s] doing good deeds or passing towels to coalminers. The third phase was from early 1990s to the mid-1990s, when some artists started gathering in the East Village, a place near Maizidian, which is where Beijing’s Great Wall Hotel is now located in the east part of Beijing. It was named East Village and was known as an avant-garde artistic community in the early 1990s. Their works stressed body language and featured autosadism to express the hardship of living through troubled times. And the fourth phase was featured by Ai Weiwei’s performance art. Distinctively different from the previous phases, in this phase Ai Weiwei went beyond the general public. His works emphasize relevance to a certain social context, stressing love and social responsibility, social criticism and communication with the public. So it’s Ai Weiwei who truly pushed the spectrum of China’s contemporary art, from introvert to a broader spectrum that cast full attention on society, the public, and created a channel for the public to understand and take part in his contemporary art, which is closely related to the people’s current lives. Ai Weiwei thus created his own idiom for performance art. He knew too well that the public sphere in China was changed with the emergence of the cyber world. He was also skillful at using public media, especially the Internet. This led to his creative slogan: “The internet headline party”. Every performance or event art had a catchy and easy to circulate characteristic such as “Public investigation” on the list of the names of children killed in the Wenchuan Sichuan Earthquake; “The July 1st Web Boycott” — calling on Internet users not to use the web on July 1, 2010; “The Old Mother Kicking the Flowers” — using a cell phone to make on-the-spot recordings of violent people with ulterior motives.

Ai Weiwei’s works draw attention to events in society; by expressing his own feelings of love and anger, his own resistance, and fearlessness he has helped many Internet users reach a consensus, share their anger, and share the love.

No doubt, his remarks, works and especially behavior in recent years have not only presented his unique narrative and sense of power, but have also demonstrated to the society and public contemporary art’s basic concern for the existential status of humanity.

Why did he do this? In a letter written on January 4th 1978 , Ai Weiwei gave his best explanation. He said: “The endless memory (of the past) poisoned our young souls like snakes, but it didn’t kill us. On the contrary, I just require a better life for myself! For twenty years, there has been stupidity, incompetence, ignorance and weakness, and only now am I becoming a bit more clear-headed. Live, and be your own master. To lead a life of purpose, take your own road.”

When he wrote this, he was 21.

May 2011

[1] from Gao Ying’s memoir: Me and Ai Qing, Beijing October Literature Publishing House, page 29.

[2] a line from a poem written by Li Xianting