Ai Weiwei has reached the particular orbit of fame where he is subject to the same celestial winds that buffet ordinary celebrities. Now 56 years old, he is one of a handful of artists who are household names and is by far the best-known, if not always the most admired, artist from China. For more than a decade beginning in 1981, he was based in the United States and absorbed the artistic energies coursing through the streets, galleries and museums of New York. In 1993 he returned to China, where he remains today, unable to leave because his passport is being held by the Chinese government. He is now a dissident artist, which comes at great personal cost yet magnifies his stature and amplifies his message, making him an international voice of conscience for artistic freedom and personal integrity in a country where it is easy to make art — and easy to make a fortune — so long as you stay within the government’s unspoken redlines. Some critics have soured on him, but few dismiss him. His power of visual condensation, his keen flair for paradox and his ability to connect well-made and appealing objects to troubling chains of thought make him an artist of exceptionally broad reach and clarity in an otherwise fractured, noisy and anarchic art world.
In 2010, Ai carpeted the cavernous hall of the Tate Modern in London with some 100 million individually painted ceramic sunflower seeds. The huge space of this hall has created a kind of arms race among artists attempting to use it in dramatic ways, but Ai’s response — one of his strongest recent conceptual works — will be hard to surpass. The sheer volume of the work, and the thought it inspires about issues of mass production, globalization, labor and the art world, make it intriguing on multiple levels. Sunflower seeds are street food in China, and the process of eating the seeds — the small reward inside the hard and often frustrating shell — creates a strange suspension of time (and appetite) that is almost hypnotic. But the “sun” in Chinese political life also recalls Chairman Mao, who attempted reconfigurations of Chinese economic and cultural life in which the raw material, human beings, was almost as expendable and negligible as the humble sunflower seed. Ai is also a canny artist, maybe even a cynical one, and the act of producing this volume of small ceramic pieces — by artisans in a city where the imperial porcelain was once made — demonstrates the now obligatory megalomaniacal power of a globe-trotting artist. “This is perhaps the most costly work among all artworks, both Chinese and Western,” Ai Weiwei said.
“Straight” is one of the most haunting works Ai produced in response to the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan Province. Frustrated by a lack of government transparency about the disaster, including how human negligence in construction might have exacerbated its effects, Ai started his own “citizens’ investigation.” Using the Internet and volunteers, he sought to document the names of children killed in the quake. That act set up a chain of implications — bad construction suggested greed and incompetence, which in turn indicted contemporary Chinese culture at the deepest levels — that led directly to one of the artist’s most dangerous clashes with the Chinese government. This 2008-2012 work consists of damaged and bent metal reinforcing bars from the quake zone that have been straightened and heaped in an ominous pile — like corpses, or the dashes on a wall a prisoner might make to count the days of internment. Straightening them was an absurd act, a waste of energy, but a gesture that also suggests both healing and the terrifying power of coercive government to bend nature, people and the built environment to its will.
Ai’s 2008 “Map of China” is made from wood reclaimed from Qing Dynasty temples, which instantly suggests fears about cultural loss and architectural destruction. But the wood, which could date from as far back as the early 17th century, has been beautifully joined to create a monumental, finely made map of a country that still has deep cultural, linguistic and religious fissures. Thus the “joinery” of the map is associated with the inevitable destruction of individual pasts. And yet the workmanship is so seamless and precise that it almost seems as if this map has been extruded through some industrial process. Which is, no doubt, one fantasy of unity lurking behind the problematic project of contemporary China: Its millions of parts, its internal entropy, can be fitted together through mass participation in the making and consuming of things. The basic human desire for an object as beautiful as this wooden sculpture will lead to cohesion, as people subsume their identities in the grand drama of working, earning, spending and forgetting.
The holes cut into otherwise functional wooden chests help give this 2008 work its name. Depending on where you stand, the holes are seen as either a series of perfect circles in alignment or various crescent shapes that suggest the phases of the moon. There is a simple, almost-too-clever visual virtuosity to the forms, which also recall dominoes lined up and ready to be toppled. But they also tug us deeper into contemplation. The moon shapes recall a long history of speculation and misapprehension about our place in the cosmos. Do the planets, the sun and all the rest of the universe revolve around us, like the moon? It took many millennia to realize that the moon’s orbit was leading us astray. The empty form of the rectilinear chests thus takes on a suggestion of the many mysteries, still unresolved, that are safely contained in our reflexive ordering of the natural world.
The 2008 “Cube Light” was one focal point of the Hirshhorn’s Ai Weiwei retrospective last year and has been acquired by the museum for its permanent collection. It consists of lights and crystals inside a metal box frame, and it dominates the space around it with an aggressive tackiness. Here, safely contained and compressed into one of the basic Platonic forms, is the particular sheen so familiar from fancy restaurants, hotel lobbies and upmarket stores preferred by the wealthy, the wannabe wealthy and Western tourists seeking out a superficial sense of the aesthetic of nouveau riche Beijing and Shanghai. The cube form suggests that the artist is referencing minimalism, but the kitschy dangling bits, the proliferation of light and reflection and the golden yellow gloware suffocating. Perhaps here, too, is an equation: The minimalist object, beloved of collectors, so costly, so perfect, so thoroughly machine made, is no better or worse than the cheap commercial allure of a restaurant casting its beckoning golden light out onto the street, trolling for customers with the hollow promise of a few hours of fake glamour.
Ai was an artistic consultant on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium, which became the instantly iconic symbol of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Although Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron realized the final design of the “Bird’s Nest” — which also recalls the crackled glazing of traditional Chinese pottery — Ai is often credited with the basic formal idea. No matter where the concept came from, his participation in and then withdrawal from the project placed him where he likes to be: at the center of major dramas in Chinese cultural and political life. Ai became a vocal critic of the Olympics and of the government’s extravagant support of that authoritarian fig-leaf spectacle, meant to project an image of modern China no matter the cost, no matter the truth. It was wildly controversial; the amount of steel necessary for the exuberant design put pressure on other building projects during a period of massive, rapid and destructive construction all over the country. Ai’s withdrawal from the project and his vehement disavowal of it can only be seen as a perfect example of what frustrates and thrills people about his mix of art and politics: It is at once both deeply principled and wildly narcissistic. As still more authoritarian countries turn to the Olympics and other mega-sporting events to burnish their reputations, update their infrastructure and line the pockets of their political and economic elites — feathering the nest — Ai is likely to be seen as a prophetic voice. These spectacles are environmentally, politically and economically ruinous. Bread and circuses is the oldest scam in the political playbook.