In Chinese, the term “dissident” is translated in two different ways. The first (持不同政见者) has a very clear political connotation and literally refers to a person who supports a heterodox political opinion. The second (异己) indicates a more general alterity and non-conformism, the first character (异) alluding to something that is uncanny, out of the ordinary.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose latest exhibition opens at London’s Royal Academy of Arts on September 19, is labelled as a dissident in both senses: criticised by both his government and fellow artists since he has so openly positioned himself in the midst of this minefield.
Most contemporary artists in China produce their work in a very careful manner: considerate of the boundaries in place between their subjective artistic search for expression and an extremely sensitive political public sphere. Not Ai Weiwei. As such, the Chinese government considers him a political dissident, while his fellow artists see him as an artistic defector, someone who has given up the pursuit of rigorous aesthetic search and opting instead for naked politics.
He has also been called an “American running dog”, accused of exploiting the manipulation of the West and of only speaking truth to power because of his celebrity. Such definitions are not confined to China – he was also embarrassingly denied a visa by the UK government (since granted) so that he could join the opening of the RA’s exhibition. But beyond bureaucracy, Ai Weiwei is acknowledged as a star.
Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai Weiwei’s artistic, and one could say political, experience started in 1978, when he became a member of “The Stars”, an avant-garde Beijing art group. Like other members, he emigrated, in his case to the United States in 1981, living in New York until 1993 when he returned to Beijing because his father (Ai Qing), one of China’s most famous poets, was seriously ill.
It was in New York that Ai Weiwei became familiar with international artists, ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol. He also became obsessed with photography and was dismayed when he returned to China to discover anew the difficulty of accessing the international art scene. Once back in Beijing he published a trilogy of art books featuring images, essays and interviews with artists. The first, The Black Cover Book, focuses on iconic international works of the 20th century, whilst the second two, The White Cover Book and The Grey Cover Book, are inspired by China’s underground art movement.
In 1995 and 1996 he became famous for the thought-provoking performances he called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and Breaking of Two Blue-and-White Dragon Bowls, in which he smashed a 2,000-year-old urn and 200-year-old vases (respectively). Allegedly, this was to echo the Red Guards’ vandalism during the Cultural Revolution as well as our attachment to materiality.
Another famous work is Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective series (1995-2003), which includes photographs of the White House, the Eiffel Tower, Piazza San Marco, the Mona Lisa and Tiananmen Square. In all these images the artist’s middle finger is upraised in the foreground. The climax of these artworks could be considered the 2000 exhibition Fuck Off, which Ai Weiwei curated as an alternative to the Shanghai Biennale.
In the meantime, Ai Weiwei designed both his house and architecture studio FAKE Design (opened in 2003) in Caochangdi, a farming village on the outskirts of Beijing. This has since become an artists’ colony.
Despite the political nature of much of his work up to this point, 2008 was the year he really became a “dissident”. This was prompted by the earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12 2008 and resulted in the death of 69,180 people. Among the victims were thousands of children who were schooled in very poor quality buildings that became known as “tofu-dregs schoolhouses”: built cutting corners, allegedly with the involvement of corrupted government officials. Echoing the childrens’ parents outcry, Ai Weiwei got to work on a series of performances and photographic artworks drawing attention to government corruption. He also used social media to denounce the government’s campaign to silence angry parents.
In May 2009 his blog was shut down. On April 3 2011, he was arrested at Beijing Capital Airport. His passport was confiscated and he was detained incommunicado for 81 days on alleged charges of bigamy and tax evasion. Once released on bail he remained under strict surveillance. In 2012 he was fined 15m yuan (£1.55m) for tax evasion in a civil case, but had never been convicted for any crime.
On June 22 2012, exactly a year after his release, Ai Weiwei launched a project drawing attention to government surveillance. He set up four cameras in his home and broadcast it as a live stream at weiweicam.com. The site received five million hits before being shut down by the government. In 2010 he took this further, constructing marble CCTV cameras and presenting them as artworks.
Ai Weiwei has called the internet his motherland. He now uses Twitter to make everything visible, in an attempt to defeat the surveillance-obsessive paranoia of State policing.
Past and present
Ai Weiwei is already well known in the UK. In 2012 he collaborated with Herzog & de Mueron to design that year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, excavated beneath the lawn of Kensington Gardens.
His 2010 installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall also caused a splash: he had commissioned the production of one hundred million ceramic seeds, all seemingly identical but nevertheless unique, created over two and a half years by 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi province), where the kilns to produce the Imperial porcelain were located starting from the Song Dynasty Jingde Emperor’s reign onwards. The sunflower seeds were acclaimed as “the seeds of hope” and encouraged a critical reflection on the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange in light of the “Made in China” phenomenon.
But his wider and more explicitly political work has not yet received a dedicated airing in the UK and so his first major exhibition in London is especially of interest. This year Ai Weiwei was nominated as the recipient of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award 2015 (together with American folk singer and writer Joan Baez), but he couldn’t participate in the ceremony. His passport was finally returned to him on July 21 2015, but his struggle with surveillance is still not over.
At 10am on September 17, Ai Weiwei joined hands with another Royal Academician, the world-renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor, to reinforce the link between art and politics.
They walked from the Royal Academy east out of London, each carrying a blanket in solidarity with refugees the world over: a clear demonstration of the visual power of political engagement.