Last year, the editors of ArtReview magazine named the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world. It was an unusual choice. Ai’s varied, scattershot work doesn’t fetch the highest prices at auction, and critics, while they admire his achievement, don’t treat him as a master who has transformed the art of his period. In China, Ai—a brave and unrelenting critic of the authoritarian regime—has spent time in jail, was not allowed by the government to leave Beijing for a year and cannot travel without official permission. As a result, he has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights in China, but not preeminently so. He is too quixotic a figure to have developed the moral gravitas of the great men of conscience who challenged the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
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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.”
This year Ai is the subject of two shows in Washington, D.C., an appropriate backdrop for an A-list power artist. In the spring, “Perspectives: Ai Weiwei” opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with a monumental installation of Fragments (2005). Working with a team of skilled carpenters, Ai turned ironwood salvaged from dismantled Qing-era temples into a handsomely constructed structure that appears chaotic on the ground but, if seen from above, coalesces into a map of China. (Fragments embodies a dilemma characteristic of Ai: Can the timber of the past, foolishly discarded by the present, be recrafted into a China, perhaps a better China, that we cannot yet discern?) And the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will present a wide-ranging survey of Ai’s work, from October 7 to February 2013. The exhibition title—“According to What?”—was borrowed from a Jasper Johns painting.
The question that is not often asked is whether Ai, as an artist, is more than just a contemporary phenom. Is Sunflower Seeds, for example, more than a passing headline? Will Ai ultimately matter to China—and to the future—as much as he does to today’s Western art world?
Ai lives in Caochangdi, a village in suburban Beijing favored by artists, where, like an art-king in exile, he regularly greets visitors come to pay homage to his vision of a better China. A large, burly man with a fondness for the neighborhood’s feral cats, Ai, who is 55, is disarmingly modest for one who spends so much time in the public eye. He recently told Christina Larson, an American writer in Beijing who interviewed the artist for Smithsonian, that he remains astonished by his prominence. “The secret police told me everybody can see it but you, that you’re so influential. But I think [their behavior] makes me more influential. They create me rather than solve the problems I raise.”
The authorities keep him in the news by, for example, hounding him for tax evasion. This past summer, during a hearing on his tax case—which he was not allowed to attend—his studio was surrounded by about 30 police cars. The story was widely covered. In 2010, he established a studio in a proposed arts district in Shanghai. The regime, fearing it would become a center of dissent—and claiming the structure violated a building code—destroyed it early in 2011. According to Ai, “It made every young person who may or may not have liked me before think I must be some kind of hero.”
Ai lives well enough, even under house arrest, but there’s little about him that’s extravagant or arty. His house, like many in the district, is gray and utilitarian. The neighborhood doesn’t have much street or café life; it’s the sort of place, one Beijing resident said, where people go to be left alone. His courtyard home consists of two buildings: a studio and a residence. The studio—a large space with a skylight—has a gray floor and white walls and seems much less cluttered than other artist studios. Both the studio and the residence have a neutral air, as if they have not yet been filled, but are instead environments where an artist waits for ideas, or acts on impulse, or greets cats and visitors. Like Andy Warhol, Ai always has a camera at hand—in his case, an iPhone—as if he were waiting for something to happen.
His life seems steeped in “befores” and “afters.” Before the modern era, he says, China’s culture had a kind of “total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, moral understanding and craftsmanship.” In ancient China, art could become very powerful. “It’s not just a decoration or one idea, but rather a total high model which art can carry out.” He finds a similar and transcendent unity of vision in the work of one of his favorite artists, van Gogh: “The art was a belief that expressed his views of the universe, how it should be.”
His more immediate before, however, is not ancient China but the totalitarian culture into which he was born. Ai’s father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, ran afoul of the regime in the late ’50s and he and his family were sent to a labor camp. He spent five years cleaning toilets. (Ai Qing was exonerated in 1978 and lived in Beijing until his death in 1996.) To Ai Weiwei, there was also another, less personal kind of emptiness about the China of before. “There were almost no cars on the street,” he said. “No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces. After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.”