Ai Weiwei – Is His Art Actually Any Good?

Ai Weiwei has become a familiar name since his arrest. He has come to personify resistance against the repression of the Chinese government. Yet for all his work as an activist, what about his art? He is an artist by trade, but most know him more for his politics than his artwork. Perhaps by paying more attention to his art, however, we can better understand his message. From The Telegraph:

Weiwei, 54, is a Conceptualist and, mercifully, he avoids the banalities of much contemporary Chinese art – whether the “Cynical Realism” of Yue Minjun’s inane grinning faces or the “Political Pop” of Wang Guangyi.

That said, I do tend to find his work rather one-note. His trademark is to refashion Chinese antiquities into works anew, investigating his nation’s complex relationship to the past as it surges maniacally towards the future.

He’s painted Neolithic vases in garish colours; he’s photographed himself shattering a Han dynasty urn; and he’s taken apart pieces of Ming furniture and reassembled them as absurd, odd-angled hybrids, like Table With Two Legs Up the Wall.

In short, he creates new through destroying old, a comment on the denial – and indeed destruction – of China’s rich cultural history by this and previous governments; on the unseemly rush to replace temples with tower blocks. Weiwei asks at what cost the Cultural Revolution, and now stratospheric economic growth, have come.

It’s fair to say, perhaps, that Weiwei’s life has become a work of art in its own right, a kind of gesamtkunstwerk. Certainly, his constant swipes at the government felt, at times, like a prolonged performance piece, goading the authorities to shut him up for good.

The temptation is also there to mythologise his entire life as one long revenge narrative against the state – his father, the Modernist poet Ai Qing, had been exiled by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, dispatched to a Gobi Desert labour camp for a decade with his young family.

The odds are currently stacked right against him, but while there’s life there’s hope, that an avenging Weiwei may yet see China transformed in the end.

This week Ai Weiwei’s artwork Circle of Animals will go on display at London’s Somerset House. Visitors will ultimately have to make their own judgment of what Ai Weiwei’s artwork is meant to represent. From Slate:

This week will see the unveiling of 12 striking animal heads cast in bronze, in the handsome 18th-century courtyard of London’s Somerset House. The Circle of Animals, as it styles itself, has connections with the same historical era. They are gigantic recreations of the Zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th-century imperial retreat outside Beijing. The last thing they look like is a contemporary art installation but that is exactly what they are.

It is difficult to discern any political resonance in Ai’s work from the startled bronze heads of Somerset House. The original heads were pillaged when Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops in 1860 and there have been fervent official attempts to buy them back—for instance, at last year’s Yves Saint Laurent sale. Only seven of the 12 originals have been located, and “Circle of Animals” might have been a none-too-subtle appeal for their repatriation.


Ai has all but explicitly denied this interpretation of his work. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value,” he has explained. What he really cares about is showing his art to a wide public. “It’s a work that everyone can understand, including children and people who are not in the art world,” he said.

Although it is styled according to 18th-century aesthetics, “Circle of Animals” is, in fact, more typical of the age in which it has been produced: the present. It has the feel of a visual joke. Its references to any controversy over the original heads are allusive. There is no polemical grandstanding going on, no bombast. Part of the joke is the freshly sumptuous setting of the work, the courtyard that was until very recently a civil service car park. Sure, art can be looted; but it can also be neutralized by the banal imperatives of bureaucracy.

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