Ai Wei Wei, The Dangerous

Mark Stevens profiles Ai Wei Wei for Smithsonian Magazine’s September issue, and asks whether the dissident artist “is more than just a contemporary phenom”:

So what is it about Ai? What makes him, in Western eyes, the world’s “most powerful artist”? The answer lies in the West itself. Now obsessed with China, the West would surely invent Ai if he didn’t already exist. China may after all become the most powerful nation in the world. It must therefore have an artist of comparable consequence to hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential. Ai (his name is pronounced eye way-way) is perfect for the part. Having spent his formative years as an artist in New York in the 1980s, when Warhol was a god and conceptual and performance art were dominant, he knows how to combine his life and art into a daring and politically charged performance that helps define how we see modern China. He’ll use any medium or genre—sculpture, ready-mades, photography, performance, architecture, tweets and blogs—to deliver his pungent message.

Ai’s persona—which, as with Warhol’s, is inseparable from his art—draws power from the contradictory roles that artists perform in modern culture. The loftiest are those of martyr, preacher and conscience. Not only has Ai been harassed and jailed, he has also continually called the Chinese regime to account; he has made a list, for example, that includes the name of each of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 because of shoddy schoolhouse construction. At the same time, he plays a decidedly unsaintly, Dada-inspired role—the bad boy provocateur who outrages stuffed shirts everywhere. (In one of his best-known photographs, he gives the White House the finger.) Not least, he is a kind of visionary showman. He cultivates the press, arouses comment and creates spectacles. His signature work, Sunflower Seeds—a work of hallucinatory intensity that was a sensation at the Tate Modern in London in 2010—consists of 100 million pieces of porcelain, each painted by one of 1,600 Chinese craftsmen to resemble a sunflower seed. As Andy would say, in high deadpan, “Wow.”

Ai’s work will be on display at Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden from early October through February 2013, his second show in the American capital this year. See also reviews in The New York Times and The Guardian of Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, the documentary film by Alison Klayman that premiered in late July.