But several Ai works are fundamentally different in character. They’re made of more than morals and commentary. They’re open-ended, mysterious, sometimes utopian in spirit. Each calls to mind—as architecture and design can—the birth of the new. The oddest instance is the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of the 2008 Olympics. While an impassioned critic of the propaganda around the Olympics, Ai nonetheless collaborated with the architects Herzog & de Meuron in the design of the stadium. What kind of China is being nurtured, one wonders, in that spiky nest?
According to Ai, governments cannot hide forever from what he calls “principles” and “the true argument.” He decries the loss of religion, aesthetic feeling and moral judgment, arguing that “this is a large space that needs to be occupied.” To occupy that space, Ai continues to dream of social transformation, and he devises actions and works that evoke worlds of possibility. For the 2007 Documenta—a famous exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany—Ai contributed two pieces. One was a monumental sculpture called Template, a chaotic Babel of doors and windows from ruined Ming and Qing dynasty houses. These doors and windows from the past seemed to lead nowhere until, oddly enough, a storm knocked down the sculpture. His second contribution was a work of “social sculpture” called Fairytale, for which he brought 1,001 people from China—chosen through an open blog invitation—to Documenta. He designed their clothes, luggage and a place for them to stay. But he did not point them in any particular direction. On this unlikely trip through the woods, the Chinese pilgrims might find for themselves a new and magical world. They too might discover, as Ai did when he went to New York, “a bowl of diamonds.”
Sunflower Seeds, his most celebrated work, yields similar questions. The painting of so many individual seeds is a slightly mad tour de force. But the scale of the work, which is at once tiny and vast—raindrop and ocean—seems no crazier than a “Made in China” consumer society and its bottomless desires. Does the number of seeds reflect the dizzying amount of money—millions, billions, trillions—that corporations and nations generate? Do the seeds simultaneously suggest the famines that mark Chinese history? Do they evoke China’s brief moment of cultural freedom in 1956 known as the “Hundred Flowers Campaign?” Do they represent both the citizen and the nation, the individual and the mass, endowing both with an air of germinating possibility? Will China ever bloom, one wonders, with the joyful intensity of van Gogh’s sunflowers?
Christina Larson in Beijing contributed reporting to this story.