“You’re not going to find any of Ai Weiwei’s work being shown in Beijing”, said each Beijing gallery representative. That’s because the artist and agent provocateur has been detained for 80 days now was released today, from what the government is saying was based on “economic charges”. The name “Ai Weiwei” has joined a long list of sensitive words in this country, and associating yourself with the artist has become tantamount to asking for trouble. Just ask the Chinese curator who was questioned by authorities after putting Ai Weiwei’s name under a blank wall in Beijing’s Incident Art Festival.
While Beijing’s lively art scene might currently be scrubbed clean of Ai Weiwei’s work, there’s one thing that’s a little difficult to “harmonize” away, as it’s known here. In 1999, Ai Weiwei began moving into the world of architecture, establishing his own architecture studio called FAKE design four years later. So Ai Weiwei’s artistic vision continues to stand in the form of buildings across the nation’s capital. The most concentrated of these is the artist district of Caochangdi, a few kilometres north of the more commercial art district called 798. It’s also the location of the artist’s studio and where he headed straight to after his release.
More after the break.
Two days ago I set out to capture these:
Three Shadows Photography Art Centre
Chinese Art Archives and Warehouse
Galerie Urs Meile
Red Brick Art Galleries
On my way to Caochangdi I asked my taxi driver, “do you know who Ai Weiwei is?” She shook her head. The restaurant owners who later served me lunch, and the lifesaver at my pool, similarly had never heard of him. So, Ai Weiwei was by no means in the realm of mainstream celebrity, but then again, artists rarely are. So I jumped on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) to survey my Chinese friends, most of whom are university educated (and whom I’ve given here English code names).
- Anita, a 22-year-old journalist said, “I don’t think he’s very well known. People who know him are mainly college students or other young people who use the internet a lot and are interested in politics. Some people, like my flatmate, don’t know who he is at all.” - Jasmine, a 21-year-old student pointed out that Ai Weiwei is the son of a very celebrated poet here in China called Ai Qing – a name most Chinese people would recognise. However aside from China’s art lovers, few people would know who his son is. Jasmine also points out there are some significant differences between what the local media and overseas media outlets are reporting regarding this story. - Lastly Jack, a 29-year-old artist said he was famous but ordinary Chinese people wouldn’t know who he is. He finished off with a gentle chuckle, saying “this is kind of a sensitive topic!”
To me the Chinese government is like the enraged father of a very wild child, who’s been out of the house, being a very bad girl. She hasn’t been behaving the way she was raised, and worst of all she’s been bad-mouthing the family to outsiders. And Dad finally decided enough is enough, it was time to reign her in. And no amount of kicking and screaming from the international art community is going to change Dad’s mind. Well at least not until he’s felt his point has been made.
The relevance of Ai Weiwei in China divides the expat bloggers and foreign journalists here. It may be that Ai Weiwei’s “offense” was not that he was outspoken, individualistic, or critical of the government – attributes that someone like popular Chinese blogger Han Han has and yet has never been in much danger of detainment. The difference is that Ai Weiwei’s audience is the west. He is, in many ways, the poster boy for what we want from a Chinese artist. His defiance is sexy. And as this documentary trailer mentions, he’s become a brand, and possibly one that’s good at feeding into a pre-existing fear that Europe and America have of China.
Perhaps what we’re dealing with here is another case of “loss of face.” Ah face-loss. Practically the cornerstone behind every issue that has come up in Chinese foreign relations. Personally, I think Ai Weiwei should just grovel, apologize, sign whatever confession he needs to sign, kiss whoever’s ass he needs to kiss, and then get out of there so he can continue to making awesome “fuck the establishment” art. But of course, that’s the Chinese in me speaking. We’re very good at holding two contradicting notions in our head at the same time.
Whatever your thoughts on Ai Weiwei, most people won’t deny that he’s 1) A great artist 2) Done great things for the profile of Chinese art overseas 3) Done great things for the local art scene. And while your average Chinese person may not know who he is, I can almost 100% guarantee they have all seen at least a photo of one of his works:
The Beijing National Stadium, aka “Bird’s Nest” which featured in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ai Weiwei was commissioned as the artistic consultant for design, collaborating with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron.
Monica Tan is a Beijing-based writer, originally hailing from Sydney, Australia. Formerly she was an Australian internet tabloid journalist but these days she can be found in Beijing, writing stories about China, travel and weird internet things. She has a twitter where she collects Chinese slang, swear words and internet speak.