Last year the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan held an exhibition of Ai WeiWei’s work entitled ‘Absent’ referencing the artist’s detention by the Chinese authorities and his subsequent inability to attend his own show. ‘Ai Weiwei: Interlacing’ currently showing at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, acts as a retrospective of the artist’s work which, in his continued absence, verges on a memorial. It creates a portrait of an artist as strong as he is fragile; as mischievous as he is serious; as alive as he is mortal.
A solo show at the Jeu de Paume is the highest accolade Paris can grant to a photographer. In this context, the show is a bit of a stretch, not only does this multi-faceted artist not fit in to the narrow category of the art form but photography – let’s face it – is not his strongest suite. As an artist, blogger and ‘Twitterer’ Ai is a prolific photographer; he uses the medium to document (and share) the ephemera of daily life (meals eaten, art works in creation, travels taken etc) and as a means of documenting the process or outcome of his work. Photography provides the ‘interlacing’ between his many projects and media; in this sense the show reminds us of the power of this medium to bear witness. Case in point: Ai was repeatedly invited by the authorities to construct a studio in Shanghai. Finally, he concedes but as soon as the building is completed, it is declared illegal. The building is torn down, all evidence of the site is removed and finally the field is ploughed-up and returned to farm land. The only evidence of this studio ever being part of reality (as opposed to a Kafkaesque nightmare) are Ai’s photographs.
‘Interlacing’ groups a diverse body of work ranging from Ai’s photos of friends taken between 1983–93, in New York, to his architecture projects, such as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Ai’s ongoing Study in Perspective, which takes in a diverse array of icons from Tiananmen Square to the Saatchi Gallery in London, invites us to give the finger to power in all its manifestations, political, cultural or otherwise. Puerile though the gesture may be, it underpins Ai’s attitude to authority, an attitude that pervades his work and the exhibition overall. No surprise then that the Chinese government has closed down his blog and Twitter account, detained him personally, and charged him with tax evading and proliferating pornography (link to Guardian story here).
“I would understand any kind of policy because I’m living in a Communist state,” says Ai in the opening scene of his video Fairy Tales, a film that chronicles his attempt to send a kind of ‘living installation’ of 1001 Chinese Citizens recruited from around the country to Kassel, Germany for Documenta 12 (a contemporary art fair), in 2007. Fairy Tales is a project that raises the hopes of the participants – that they will be granted a ‘wish’ to travel aboard: an opportunity unavailable to many Chinese people, either due to financial constraints or bureaucratic obstacles to attaining a passport, permission to travel and visas from the host country. It’s an exercise of countless obstacles that reveals the interplay between the state authorities and private lives; but the bad guys in this ‘fairy tale’ are not evil witches or sorcerers but the red tape of bureaucracy and cold anonymity of civil servants. The moral of the story? Power can be as banal as it is all-pervasive; but that doesn’t make it any easier on the human heart. (Mandarin speakers can see the first part of the Fairy Tales video here, English speakers can check out this DVD on Amazon.) http://www.amazon.com/Ai-Weiwei-Fairytale-Documentary-DVD/dp/3037641533
Ai’s Earthquake series hints at another kind of power, here authority power loses the civil servant tie and clip-board and flexes some muscle. In 2008, 69,000 people were killed and five million were made homeless in an earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Some of these deaths, particular those of 5000 children who died in shoddily built so-called ‘tofu skin’ schools, were preventable. Ai not only documented the tragedy, he and his team investigated and began asking for answers. These requests for information and accountability culminated in a police bashing for Ai in August, 2009. A month later, he underwent emergency brain surgery to alleviate a cerebral hemorrhage. Photographs from the earthquake series and his personal snapshots of his injuries and hospital visit remind us that, for all his cult status, Ai is only as tough as his skin and bone. That is, not very tough at all.
When the Chinese authorities seized Ai’s blog, they took its cache of around 200, 000 photos with them. We’re curious to know how they might analyse and categorise this body of work. Perhaps they can take a few tips for the Jeu de Paume curators? They grouped photos according to subversive themes such as: ‘art’, ‘meals & snacks, ‘cats’ and ‘Ai making silly faces’…
Interlacing: Ai Weiwei shows at the Jeu de Paume until April 29, 2012. If you can’t make it, you might like to check out Ai’s 2011 TED talk about his work and issues of freedom of speech in China (below).