81 DAYS: Ai Weiwei’s Rise to Celebrity Artist-Dissident

By Lecia Bushak, REA Intern

About a month ago, on June 22, 2011, the famous Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei was released from captivity, 81 days after being arrested by Chinese authorities for unspecified “economic crimes.”

Mr. Ai is an artist in many ways — he is a sculptor, an architect, and a designer; he is a conceptualist and an installation artist, but he is also an outspoken political activist who is highly critical of the Chinese government.  And his incarceration has now rendered him one of the most famous modern rebels.  Has his status as dissident overshadowed his legacy as artist?  I say no; Mr. Ai’s political philosophy and artwork are fundamentally tied together.  He is a living exhibition of the “rebel-artist,” one who steers away from the banality of aesthetics and towards the concept, often controversial, behind his art.

Departing from the safety of aesthetics, an artist’s ideas can become dangerous.  Especially to one-party regimes intending to smother opposition and the free flow of ideas.

That’s why Mr. Ai was arrested on April 3, 2011, at Beijing Airport on his way to Hong Kong, and disappeared for 81 days.  During the months Ai was missing, he quickly became a symbol of rebellion to the Western art world and international observers who demanded his release.  Months later and no longer imprisoned, he has accepted an invitation to teach at a university in Berlin, although he cannot leave China until June 22, 2012 – he must remain under surveillance for one year, and will most likely suffer continuous badgering from Chinese authorities if he continues creating art.

But what about this man’s artwork itself, the cause of all the political hubbub?  Can one artist truly hold so much power in an idea — when he photographed himself breaking a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty vase (above), or flicking off Tiananmen Square (below)?  The actions behind these famous photographs are sudden, dramatic—childish even, so obviously churlish acts of rebellion that we are left to wonder whether Mr. Ai tried to remain subtle even a little bit, whether he was at all worried about the consequences of his ideas.

The “rebellious” works are, of course, only a fraction of the body of work Ai Weiwei has produced over the years.  He is well-known for his work on the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest stadium, and other beautiful sculptural works of lighting such as Fountain of Light.  He is, furthermore, entirely capable of subtleties and nuances in his works despite the author’s above point, as seen in his sculptural and installation works below; Sunflower Seeds and Moon Chest.

Perhaps the world needs artists like these, the ones who will, in short, flick off a camera and get arrested.  The world needs to rally their support behind someone who isn’t afraid to use art as vehicle for dissidence.

I’ll hand it to Peter Aspden of Slate“This explains the intensity of feeling surrounding the arrest of Ai Weiwei. Culture has become a forum for the West to express its misgivings over the resurgent East. The art world can say things that the business or political communities, more pragmatic in their concerns, can’t afford to say.”

Scroll below to see photos of Ai Weiwei’s work.

Sunflower Seeds (2010): Every single one of these tiny sunflower seeds were hand-fired and painted individually, and about 100 million of them were placed on the ground at Tate Modern in London.   As Adrian Searle says in his review of the show, “Every unique seed is homogenized into a sifting mass.”

Bird’s Nest stadium design: In 2003, the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron submitted and won the design for the 2008 Beijing Olympics stadium.  The design was inspired by Chinese ceramics—giving it a “bird’s nest” appearance.  Ai Weiwei served as “artistic consultant,” to the team, principally architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

Moon Chest (2008): Exhibited at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, Moon Chest is comprised of eight Huanghuali wooden pieces that allow visitors to peer through large circular holes in the wood.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2011): In London, Ai Weiwei installed reproductions of the Zodiac sculptures that once surrounded the 18th-century fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, but were destroyed in 1860 by British troops.  Ai is quoted to have said, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value.”

World Map (2009)

Cube Light (2008)

Rooted Upon (2009)

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