Ai Weiwei is a complicated individual living in complicated times. But he’s an artist so this goes without saying. He’s constantly challenging the status quo and seems to thrive on it. But for him there may be no other way of being human, given the role he has accepted as an artist. For many artists, it is this way. Regardless of nationality, art is about getting into trouble, not about sitting safely in one’s designer loft. Notice how artists flock together whenever they move into rough industrial neighborhoods. Many people like to think of themselves as artists. It’s easy to adopt this pose. Very few, however, actually take risks either in their work or to produce it. Ai Weiwei risks everything for his work. More after the break.
His art (which must include his architecture) is the expression of a very specific sort of identity that could only have come about in contemporary China. In the larger context, he is part of a lineage that stretches back to the calligraphers and poets who, despite existing outside the center of power, produced work that drove straight to its heart.
He is undoubtedly the most famous artist to emerge from China. This is in part due to his ability to promote himself as an iconoclast, which resonates with western audiences. As a supposed countercultural rebel he also gets a good deal of unwanted attention. He’s always sticking his neck out—or his middle finger. Take, for example, a series of photographs of some of the world’s most recognizable government buildings, like The White House or Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Most of his art, however, is defined by subtlety. His bicycle and furniture constructions, for example, are strikingly “Chinese” because they evoke issues unique to China’s culture. Moreover, China scholar, Sherin Wing defines this as China’s specific form of postcolonial, truncated modernity. The art cannot readily be separated from this context. In this sense, he is not countercultural at all. He is more the embodiment of cultural consciousness. The countercultural read comes from the ways in which he presents the contradictions and struggles within the broader culture—as well as his own life.
His latest installation for the Unilever Series at the Tate Modern dumped one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds on the floor of Turbine Hall, creating an instant porcelain beach. It is an astonishing installation that reverberates with the sort of political and cultural critique that often gets him in trouble back home. But what does it mean in London? Can you pick some up and take them home? Can you step on them? The layers of meaning are not accidental. They run deep. They also run not so deep, to the point where the seeds represent the community of Twitter users he engages daily. Yet each seed was sculpted and glazed by hand in the famous porcelain-producing city of Jingdezhen—the antithesis of mass and faceless industrial production. This goes way back to something local and old while at the same time being contemporary and global. The seeds transcend Turbine Hall even without being pocketed and taken away by patrons. The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post.