Readers of this blog will know that I’ve spent some time on Ai Weiwei, but sadly I find him more admirable as a citizen than interesting as an artist. His work is adequate in its genre, but not exceptional. In the recent survey show two works stood out for me. One, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, has already been reproduced here. Viewers who find the destruction of culture shocking might reflect that a “Han Dynasty” pot bought at an antique market was not necessarily made 2000 years ago. The Chinese have different ideas about authenticity than are current in the west. The breaking of the pot, and the gesture of defacement in another, related piece, are clearly protesting the wholesale destruction
worked by a Communist Party that doesn’t care about anything but money and takes no pride in Chinese culture, but the Chinese also have a need to destroy culture, to make some space for the new, and this is likely something of what is in Ai’s mind. The worst damage, as Ai, the son of a poet, undoubtedly realizes, is the simplification of the language, but the argument is that mass literacy would be impossible without it. The same dilemma exists in art. In the west we manage to keep connected with our past while all the while telling ourselves and the rest of the world that we are a young civilization. Factually this is not true—western culture is as old as Chinese, but we seem to have found a way to renew ourselves. It’s impossible to go on making art or poetry or music without some periodic purge of the accumulated wealth. The first emperor tried something of the kind, but since then the Chinese have just kept adding. The communists have taken on the task of cleaning house, which should mean putting historic culture in the museum, where it can sit at a distance from ongoing, lived creativity. So I think that in this piece at least, Ai’s position is complex—as an artist he naturally abhors a nation that doesn’t care about its own culture, that will not protect the past, but as a modern artist he is also naturally an iconoclast who understands that in our time creativity is destruction. He is doing to Chinese culture what his heroes of western art have done in their own context—in other words, he is a modernizer, just like the Party. You can tell from his expression and body language in the photograph that he knows dropping the vase is a great gesture.
The other exceptional work is made of rebar from buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake laboriously straightened and laid out on the floor. That’s good conceptual art—real action on the social material. It’s a reproach to the Party for what happened, a parody of their own desire to forget and a pun on the title—because they are never straight with the people—all in a single gesture. The rest of the show stays in the realm of depiction of ideas. This is an important distinction, but likely difficult for many to sustain.