Time and Ai Weiwei

I’ve just finished writing a review for the magazine Yishu. It’s a comparison between two recently published books, Ai Weiwei’s blog posts and Gao Minglu’s historical study of the Chinese avant-garde, Total Modernity. I love Ai’s whole attitude. He is aggressive, honest and funny. And he makes no compromises with Chinese corruption, evil and stupidity. That is the attitude we should all take toward our own countries, at all times. Alas, people seem to feel the need to be “positive.” Or patriotic, which is worse. But as an artist, Ai has the ability to look through the cracks in the world, to see it as it is, from both the inside and out. He also has a temporal intuition, not a unique one, not original, but a truthful one, valid for all of us. He sees Chinese society as an enormous ruin:

“These are ruins in the truest sense, vast and limitless, extending beyond the horizons of space and time. For a long time now people have been born into them, lived in them and walked atop them…The existence of these ruins proves that former strength and glory can be destroyed and obliterated thoroughly. It proves the weakness and fragile nature of rationality, that the soul can collapse, the spirit may depart, and that good conscience might possibly go extinct. On this patch of ruins the old refuse reason, while the young find pleasure wherever and whenever they can.”

Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn

Shelley had to meet a traveler from an antique land, but Ai learns the same lesson just driving through Beijing. Actually, his nearest predecessor is Robert Smithson, who saw through American modernity to its entropic finale. In a way, entropy was too high falutin’ a concept even for Smithson, simple exhaustion was good enough. But, as Ai points out, the world may be exhausted, but each generation has a full quota of energy, it just may not be enough to lift the world. Where Ai does say something new is to point out that moral exhaustion accompanies social entropy. And social entropy is a function of growth itself. The future will be endless sameness, a desert of details.

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