Ai Weiwei: A Chinese Artist from Beijing to Palermo, through New York

by Giusi Tamburello[1]

In lieu of an introduction

According to Leo Spitzer (1887-1960), when dealing with a literary text to observe it from the point of view of stylistic criticism it is necessary to find a starting point. The starting point can be considered as the element that differentiates what that very writer does with the language from what other writers of the same epoch, or of other epochs, do. If the same technique is applied to works of art, then there is too a “starting point” to be considered while keeping in mind that the starting point depends on the sensibility of the critic, and that it can be changed at will.[2]

In “Odyssey”, the work of Ai Weiwei 艾未未 (1957 –   ) presented in Palermo,[3] at first gaze there are a few elements that attract the viewer’s attention: the dimension of the work, which develops over one thousand square meters of wallpaper; the fact that the wallpaper is transposed on the floor; the density of the drawings decorating the wallpaper. This paper will elaborate on these “starting point” elements, but before doing this, it seems necessary to underline some aspects which are characteristic of the artistic experience of Ai Weiwei, a contemporary Chinese conceptual artist well-known all over the world for his multi-faceted production as well as for his being politically engagée.[4]

In the Chinese tradition, not differently from other cultures, the intellectual not only produces art but also represents the cultural consciousness of the country. In traditional China, intellectuals would later become employed as officials in the imperial government. They were selected through examinations based on the knowledge of books, the five Classics,[5] characterized by their humanistic contents, and the position of official and intellectual would in most cases coincide. Therefore, in order to be loyal to the emperor, officials bore the burden of ‘informing’ him about what was not working in the deeds of the government. According to the emperor’s will, such sense of responsibility by the side of the official could be welcomed, or produce disappointment, followed by a subsequent order to exile, cause his detention or, in the worst cases, a death sentence.

Within this cultural frame, Chinese intellectuals have always preserved their right to dissent when convinced of the need for action in order to make things better for their Country. At the same time, they have consciously or unconsciously absorbed the idea of a kind of self-censorship as a means of self-preservation.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, in 1957. In this same year, the Chinese government had launched an anti-rightist campaign in which Ai Qing 艾青 (1910-1996), Ai Weiwei’s father and one of the most famous poets of the era, was persecuted for having taken side with Ding Ling 丁玲 (1904-1986), the woman writer who had been sent to forced labor camp for having requested more freedom in literary work.

Ai Weiwei father’s experience is among those very controversial cases which characterize Chinese history, especially during times of deep changes as, for instance, the 20th century has been. Though a very significant poet, among the most important contemporary ones in China, the biography of Ai Qing shows his uneasy relationship to the Chinese Communist Party which led to his suffering during the Cultural Revolution.[6] A hint of the personality of Ai Qing can be offered by the choice he made of his pen name 艾青. His original name was Jiang Haicheng 蒋海澄, and the character for “Jiang”, the surname, was the same as in the name of Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 (1887-1975),[7] the leader of the Guomindang, the Nationalist Party.[8] Since Ai Qing had been tortured by the Guomindang, when signing his name to his poem “Da’an River-My Nanny”,[9]   he began with writing the above component of his surname, « 艹 » which represents “grass”, to end up crossing out the component below « X ». The drawing of the “grass” on top and the crossing below resulted in the character “ài” 艾. This was followed by the character “qīng” 青, indicating all the shades of colors from green to dark blue, by this recalling the expression “Haicheng”, of his original name, that means “clear sea”.

There might be a metaphorical connection with the father’s biography even in the name of Ai Weiwei. His name, in fact, includes “ài” that, this time, is followed by a reduplication of the character “wèi” (未) which means “have not, did not”, and corresponds in classical Chinese to the negation “not”. It might also be of some interest to notice that “ài”, one of the traditional surnames in China, is the name of the Chinese mugwort (Artemisia argyi), an herbaceous perennial plant used in Chinese medicine, and it is homophone of the word “ài”, written as 爱, meaning “to have profound affection, love” and also “to be fond of, to treasure, cherish, hold dear, to take good care of”.[10]

Ai Weiwei’s fame in the world is bound to his art and also to its distinctive character of criticism. Ai Weiwei’s criticism can be of a political nature, as activist for human rights, as well as of a cultural nature when it pushes towards a more conscious approach to tradition. While his political activism has landed him in prison, and also brought additional persecution by the Chinese government, as broadly described in all the documentation to be found online about him, a further investigation of his approach to tradition, on the other hand, can unveil other aspects of his artistic production.

Ai Weiwei’s artistic roots are to be found in the cinema as, in 1978, he began to attend the Beijing Film Academy to study animation. While in Beijing, in 1979, he joined the avant-garde art group called Xingxing 星星 (Stars). In 1983, due to increasing political pressure, the group separated and the various artists moved abroad, aiming at freer forms of art compared to socialist realism which at that time was dominant in China. Between 1981 and 1993, Ai Weiwei lived in the United States, mostly in New York. At the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of California, he studied English while, in New York, he attended the Parson School of Design. The years spent in America offered Ai Weiwei the possibility to become acquainted with the American artistic world of the time and artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns attracted Ai Weiwei’s attention towards conceptual art. He also became a friend of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who had known his father.

In 1993, Ai Weiwei left the States and returned to Beijing because of his father’s illness. Since then, his activities in the world of art have been multifarious. He contributed to the establishment of the Beijing East Village, an experimental artists’ village like the East Village in New York where he had lived. He published books about the new Chinese artists (between 1994 and 1997) and tried himself in architecture by building a studio house in Caochangdi (northeast of Beijing, 1999), followed by FAKE studio, a second architecture studio (2003), and he was also curator of art exhibitions.

In 2005, thanks to an invitation by Sina Weibo[11] to start a blog, his interest moved towards the world of the Internet. The blog lasted until 2009 when it was shut down. Ai Weiwei also worked in the Herzog & De Meuron project for the Bird’s Nest Stadium inaugurated in Beijing during the Olympic Games of 2008.

Though the above activities have been briefly sketched, Ai Weiwei’s production is vast and multi-faceted, he has been invited by the most important art institutions in the world, and his works are exhibited in the most re-known galleries. Nevertheless, his relation to the Chinese government remains somewhat complex and many are the actions taken against him, though this does not prevent Ai Weiwei from continuing to produce works of art.

Notwithstanding their subject variety, whether confronted with the Sunflower Seeds, exhibited at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London in 2010[12] or the Maybe, Maybe Not, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2017,[13] in the works of Ai Weiwei, including the architectural ones, there is always a very strong ‘visual’ impact.

When he was living in the East Village in New York, he had the habit to get around with a camera taking pictures of whatever was around him. He did the same while running his blog, where he would publish up to one hundred photos in a single post.[14]

Starting from his studies at the Beijing Film Academy, and following with his further artistic experiences, it might be possible to assume that the visual aspect of art is a quite distinguishing element in Ai Weiwei’s production. Furthermore, his studies and knowledge are based on the use of the Chinese characters of the Chinese written language whose ‘visual’ component is evident in itself.

« Odyssey » in Palermo

Starting from the 90s of the 20th century, the Mediterranean Sea is being inundated by the uninterrupted flux of migrants from lands consumed by wars, famine, or violations of basic human rights. People who cannot continue to live in their own countries look to other places to start a new life. From an initial phase, in which local administrators have tried their best to receive the multitudes of people arriving by wrecked boats on the coasts of Sicily, bit by bit, the situation has been recognized by the European Union as something hard to deal with through the efforts of a single State.

The problems related to this epochal phenomenon of migration are filling newspapers’ pages, books, television news, conferences, seminars, and are under the eyes of everyone. Most probably, this is also the reason why the Italian section of Amnesty International commissioned Ai Weiwei for a work to be exhibited in the City of Palermo.

The work which title is “Odyssey” has taken Ai Weiwei six months of work and it covers a surface of one thousand square meters that are the dimension of the floor of the immense hangar of the former Officine Ducrot, the site of the very famous industrial production of furniture by Vittorio Ducrot during the beginning of the 20th century.

The title chosen by Ai Weiwei recalls immediately the wanderings of Odysseus, the Greek hero, narrated by Homer. While sharing with Odysseus the perils of a sea journey, the thematic center of this “Odyssey” reveals the journeys of refugees of our modernity. As explained by Ai Weiwei himself, the roots of this work are very deep and refer to his own experience:

I thought of my own experience as refugee. When I was born, my father, Ai Qing, was denounced as enemy of the Party and of the people. We were sent to a labor camp in a remote area far from home […]. It is an awful experience to be considered a foreigner in your own country, an enemy of your people, and of those things my father loved the most.[15]

As an artist, Ai Weiwei is able to turn his personal experience into a piece of art that conveys universal values. Presented in Palermo in 2017, “Odyssey” arrives after a long process of investigation made by Ai Weiwei. After receiving his passport back from the government, in 2015, he decided to visit refugees camps. In 2016, he visited 40 camps in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza, Kenya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mexico.[16] This first-hand experience, together with the increase in the number of refugees due to the war in Syria, inspired in Ai Weiwei a work that is impressive also in its dimensions.

Entering the hangar of the Officine Ducrot projects the visitor not only in a space which is enormous but also where the dimension of length is dominant. The wallpaper is pasted to the floor in lines and these lines draw the sight of the visitor into a kind of visual tunnel that culminates in a dot towards the end, seemingly very far away. So, whereas the wallpaper is firmly pasted and therefore still, the optical effect it creates is one of movement, which absorbs the viewer.

The lines of drawings develop six main themes: the war, the ruins of the war, the refugees’ journeys, the crossing of the sea, the refugees’ camps, the demonstrations and protests.[17] War is represented both by contemporary soldiers, tanks and airplanes, and by soldiers in ancient Greek attires. By this, the concept seems to express a continuity of the concept of war from the ancient times until today, another reason maybe for choosing the title “Odyssey” with its association to the Trojan War. The ruins of the war are shown in broken buildings on which helicopters fly over. The refugees’ journeys with their crossing of the sea are depicted with long rubber boats[18] floating under a sky where silent constellations are fixed. The refugees’ camps are shown in their almost factory-like reproduction of tents, all of them the same shape. The demonstrations and protests find an expression on sentences written on pieces of cloth hanging on the iron nets surrounding the camps on which it is written: no one is illegal; open the border.

Along the lines of drawings, during the fights, contemporary soldiers seem to turn into ancient Greek ones; unknown mythological animals appear; branches of olive trees are now full of leaves, now completely dry; birds, clouds, a moon, a composition recalling Michelangelo’s “The Pity” add to the composition details of meanings and of metaphors. In its grandiosity of dimension, the impact of the work on the viewer is very strong.

In the introductory piece of the illustrative booklet to the Ai Weiwei’s work it is possible to read:

The research on which this work is based has expanded to the Egyptian civilization, and to the Greek one, to finally reach to our times, as if to testify the character instrinsic to the Mediterranean civilization. This is, in a final analysis, a representation of the whole of the mankind, as a nomadic civilization charged with tragedy and, at the same time, with humanity. At the centre of this work, a quote from Gilgamesh, the most ancient epic poem in history, reminds to us how hospitality is the unwritten law of our civilization, an ethical as well as moral imperative but, at the same time, the measure of us as human beings.[19]

This above passage transmits a very conscious approach to today’s migrants’ issue, which is based on the knowledge of our past history characterized by hospitality and a sense of solidarity, too, that cannot and should not be forgotten. By drawing his work in a vast expanse of very small details, Ai Weiwei seems to want to make the visitor approach upclose the problems of the migrant people. In the following photo,[20] it is possible to have an idea of the dimension of “Odyssey”:

The hangar

The rolls placed in straight lines, one alongside the other, the length of the Officine Ducrot give off the impression of waves of images in a vast sea that flees to the very bottom in the distance, almost turning into a dot at the very end. People can walk on “Odyssey”, a child can enjoy running on it, becoming the visitor him/herself, a traveler along the scenes. So, the visitor becomes, even before he/she knows, a participant in the work of art.

In the following photo, it is possible to see a part of a foot:

Stepping on

The foot, covered in a plastic shoe cover, stepping on “Odyssey” brings to a very striking level the connection between the visitors and the work of art. By being walked on, the work of art is being “used” by the visitor and it becomes a good for consumerism.

Another photo describes the dark side of war:

The dark side

This image shows details of the destruction following a war; of the people carrying their few things while moving away from their land; of the boats crossing the sea; of the still constellations and the moon actually there but distant, immobile but guiding their fate.

The unchanging character of war is shown in the following photo:

War: yesterday and today

It shows war as “dressed” in ancient and in modern attires. More details can be found in the following photos:

Details/1

Details/2

The photos very well suggest the visual component of Ai Weiwei’s art. In fact, in “Odyssey”, in particular, the development of the theme in black and white drawings distributed along the lines of wallpaper roll recalls quite immediately the traditional scrolls of calligraphy. On them, the lines of black ink of the Chinese characters move from top to bottom, or along an horizontal line, contrasting with the white of the rice paper of the background. In “Odyssey”, the movement that arises from the lines is impressively of the same kind as in the Chinese tradition though, this time, created through a kind of contemporary magnifying lens that is the interpretation of the artist.

A few conclusive remarks

Ai Weiwei’s “Odyssey” with its title as well as with its content can be interpreted as a metaphor of the journey and more specifically of the sorrowful yet hopeful journey of escape from death toward life. This metaphor can have its origin in Ai Weiwei’s personal experience in China, but moves towards a more universal dimension by becoming the means to interpret a contemporary phenomenon of migration. Ai Weiwei himself left China for the United States for many years, somehow pursuing the idea of the “American dream”.

When leaving behind difficulties, the destined land appears as if a dream-land. Whether this dream-land is an airport in the States or a coastline of Sicily, the hopes, the dreams taken when embarking are quite the same. For the people who have to leave, any other place can become a dream-land. Therefore, also the metaphors acquire a universal value. So far, in the past there has been an “American dream” whereas in the contemporary world there is also a “Chinese dream” as translated by the relevant expression “中国梦” (Zhongguo meng) very popular in recent years in China.[21]

When the metaphors become universal, they overcome the cultural limitations imposed by the border of a country. After his many travels, and basing himself in Berlin, Ai Weiwei has overcome the concept of borders, bringing to mind the adjective “liquid”, as used by Zygmunt Bauman to describe the contemporary reality.[22]

The use of technology enhances the possibility of overcoming limits represented by territorial borders. Interviewed about the use of his blog, Ai Weiwei stresses the possibility of reaching vast amounts of people in a very short time:

How many people visit your blog?

By now, more or less, one million and some hundreds. In one day, there are one hundred thousand visitors.

More than to an exhibition.

Yes, and this has never happened before. I can inaugurate an exhibition at any moment, if I want. And this is for me very important. When I create works of art, I make a project, then people visit the site for about half an hour. If I am lucky, I shall realize a very beautiful installation for somebody whom I do not know in a place that I do not know, maybe in The Netherlands, in Amsterdam. With the blog, instead, in the moment I touch the keyboard, anybody, maybe a girl or an elderly man or a peasant, can read my post and say: “Look at this, it’s really different, this guy is amazing”.

Is it immediate?

Yes.[23]

Based on the above assumptions, the exhibition “Odyssey” in Palermo, beyond the actuality of the theme exposed, also shows the contemporaneity of Ai Weiwei as an artist. It is, in fact, possible to focus on three aspects that seem to define well and contextualize the artist in our times.

“Art on demand” is the first aspect. On the occasion of its XXXII General Assembly, the Italian section of Amnesty International commissions Ai Weiwei a work of art about a specific issue within the scope of Amnesty. This element is in line with tradition, Michelangelo, too, was commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. In our times, the celebration of the prestige and wealth of the commissioner leaves room for the theme of a work of art which, like with “Odyssey”, is intended as a “complaint”. Though every visitor to the exhibition is informed about the fact that the commissioner is Amnesty International together with the Municipality of Palermo, the attention is driven to the theme of the work of art. This is especially effective due to the fact that everybody knows about the problem with migrants thanks to the diffusion of the news by the media, and thanks also to the status of the artist who is well known for expressing his personal view on sensitive issues.

“Art as an object of consumerism” is the second aspect. “Odyssey” is created on wallpaper rolls and, as such, it can be sent to destination and placed on the floor, as at the Officine Ducrot, for example. To expand the concept to the extreme, as wallpaper rolls “Odyssey” could be bought at a supermarket. In societies like ours today, where information is quickly transmitted through technology, and where it is easy to replicate in mass production, everything becomes a “thing to buy”, including for art. By going to the exhibition, visitors become actual users of the “thing”, the work of art. Even more so in the case of Ai Weiwei’s “Odyssey” on which visitors can walk as shown in the photo below:

Visitors

“The absence of the artist” is the third aspect. Having received a commission to produce a work of art and having sent it to the exhibition site, the job is completed and there is no need for Ai Weiwei to be present at the inauguration ceremony. All the visitors know of Ai Weiwei due to his fame both in China and abroad, the reason for which they go to the exhibition, but the artist becomes an abstract entity. Thanks to technology, it is possible to concretely organize an exhibition and to show a “real” work of art, so real it is even possible to walk on it, while the artist is present only in his most “virtual-reality” like aspect: his absence.

As an artist raised in a Chinese cultural environment, Ai Weiwei is used to syncretism. Chinese culture has always been characterized by the co-existence within a shared frame of multifarious elements. It is the case of philosophical thoughts such as Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. It is the case of populations of different origins living in the same country, as it is for national minorities. It is the same for the “market economy of a special kind” in today’s times in which a communist country deals with a market economy.

His familiarity with the syncretic way of interpreting reality allows Ai Weiwei to move from China to New York, then to Berlin, and finally to have his works of art exhibited in Palermo, for instance, without losing his Chinese essence. On the contrary, that essence is his filter through which he interacts with whatever is around him, as he does with his photo-taking. Technology offers Ai Weiwei an extremely ductile means that perfectly copes with his creative urges. In fact, during an interview, he says:

The web and its logics have become for humanity some of the main instruments for liberation from old values and systems, a thing impossible until today. I am absolutely convinced about the fact that technology has created a new world. From the beginning, our brains are programmed to digest and absorb information. This is the way we function even if, as a matter of fact, everything is changing without us even perceiving this. Theory arrives always afterwards. Anyhow, these ones are extraordinary times.

Just these ones?

I think that this one is the moment, just now. It is the beginning. We still do not know this is the moment of what, maybe something even more unbelievable will happen. But we really see the sun rising at the horizon. It has been covered by clouds for almost hundred years. We have been living in extremely sad conditions, nevertheless we can still feel the warmth, and our bodies are still capable to perceive, in our depths, a kind of enthusiasm, even though we know that death is waiting for us. We should not enjoy the moment, but rather create the moment.

Produce the moment?

Yes, exactly. Because we are, as a matter of fact, part of a reality and, if we do not realize that, we are irresponsible people. We are a productive reality. We are reality, a part of reality that pushes towards producing another reality. Maybe the blog does not represent reality as much as it produces it.[24]

In conclusion, “Odyssey”, the work of art by Ai Weiwei shown in Palermo, confirms, if necessary, the complete integration of the artist in the contemporary scene. Confronted with Ai Weiwei’s art, one cannot avoid considering the work itself, and on the other hand, the artist and his collocation with today’s world.

For China, maybe he is an “uncomfortable” artist but, at the same time, his art shows how advanced the way of thinking of an artist whose background is rooted in Chinese culture is. The visual component of Ai Weiwei’s works of art, that seems to derive from the traditional Chinese way of writing as well as from his studies on film making, is remarkably noticeable in “Odyssey”, too. Ai Weiwei’s contemporary “Odyssey” exhibited in Palermo speaks of an artist who has, with his own culture and with the cultures of the world, a very “dialectical” approach.

His personal experience as a “migrant” for family reasons is mirrored in today’s images of migrations. The sensitivity enhanced during his youth becomes a means to perceive and to describe the present. As an artist, Ai Weiwei has the capability to mediate between what is personal and what, through the work of art, becomes a shared experience. The work of art, the experience it allows the observer, now participant, becomes the focus of the whole process, the center of the attention, the stimulus to considerations. For this reason, while being absent, the artist is present.

[1] The Author is assistant professor of Chinese language and literature at the Department of Humanities of the University of Palermo, Italy.

[2] See: Leo Spitzer, Critica stilistica e semantica storica, Bari, Edizioni Laterza, 1966.

[3] The Exhibition “Odyssey” has been organized by the Department of Culture of the Municipality of Palermo and by Amnesty International – Italy at the ZAC (Zisa Contemporary Arts), from April 23rd to June 20th 2017.

[4] It will be of some interest to visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei as the page is quite rich in contents that have also been taken into consideration in this paper.

[5] The list includes: the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the Yi Jing (Book of Changes), and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

[6] During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Ai Qing, who was confined to a village for five years, had, among the other tasks, to clean the public toilets.

[7] This is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters 蒋介石 that in putonghua, the standard Chinese system of pronunciation, are read as Jiang Jieshi.

[8] The actual transcription. It is also traditionally referred to as Kuomintang (KMT). In 1949, having lost the Chinese Civil War with the Communist Party, the Guomindang retreated to Taiwan.

[9] Considered Ai Qing’s most representative poem, it was written in 1933.

[10] 新时代汉语大字典New Age Chinese – English Dictionary, Beijing, The Commercial Press, 2nd edition, 2017, p. 6.

[11] China’s biggest Internet platform.

[12] See: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds , accessed on February 12th 2022.

[13] See: https://www.designboom.com/art/ai-weiwei-maybe-maybe-not-israel-museum-06-12-2017/ , accessed on February 12th 2022. In one of the images to be seen at this link, it is possible to see the work “Odyssey” used as actual wallpaper.

[14] See: http://wilfingarchitettura.blogspot.com/2012/11/0057-mondoblog-ai-wei-wei-il-blog-come.html , accessed on February 12th 2022. See also: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/ai-weiweis-blog , accessed on February 12th 2022.

[15] See the booklet “Ai Weiwei Odyssey” distributed at the exhibition site. (Mine are the translations of the excerpts from the booklet)

[16] As above.

[17] As above.

[18] Ai Weiwei has further developed the theme of the rubber boats used by the migrants in the exhibition titled “Law of the Journey” held at the Trade Fair Palace, National Gallery in Prague from March 17th 2017 to July 1st 2017. See: https://www.ngprague.cz/en/event/153/aj-wej-wej and https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/installation/ai-weiwei-s-law-of-the-journey-in-prague/ , accessed on February 12th 2022.

[19] See note 14.

[20] The photographs included in this article have all been taken by me.

[21] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Dream , accessed on February 12th 2022.

[22] See: Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge (UK), Polity Press; Malden (MA), Blackwell, 2000.

[23] See footnote 13. (Mine the translation)

[24] See footnote 13. (Mine the translation)

[25] The Author’s full gratitude to Brenda Epifani for her kind revision of the English text.

 

References

In this paper,[25] a part from the illustrative booklet to the exhibition titled “Ai Weiwei Odyssey” and Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, the bibliographical references are exclusively based on the Internet as a kind of homage to Ai Weiwei’s style of work based on contemporaneity.

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