This guest posting comes from the sizzling keyboard of Paul Manfredi, head of the Chinese Studies Program at Pacific Lutheran University and the author of China Avant Garde, one of the Internet’s best analytical stops for insights into the Chinese contemporary art scene. Manfredi’s blog is a rich blend of image and word, and highly recommended. My apologies, by the way, to readers for taking so long to post this essay which I received several weeks ago! — Adam Cathcart
Reevaluating Ai Weiwei
The news of the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on June 22 brought a collective sigh of relief, though one quickly tempered by the fact that the once outspoken Ai is for the time being unable to express anything at all. This unfortunate situation for Ai, however, is not a surprise or even much of a concern to many people in China itself, and that includes artists whose fates are most closely linked to Ai Weiwei. Consumers of news media in English, meanwhile, could hardly be faulted for misunderstanding this fact given the relentless reporting on the fate of this largely unrepresentative Chinese artist. What, in fact, Ai Weiwei’s experience does occasion is a deeper reflection on what it means to be a Chinese artist in the present globally linked, internet savvy, but also often blatantly ignorant media culture.
To begin with, a question: of all the ways we might describe the experience of any contemporary Chinese artist, why has “oppressed” become so prevalent? Clearly, Chinese government control of artistic expression is a factor in contemporary China, as it has been for decades. It is not, however, the only factor, or even a major factor for most artists. Moreover, as a factor, one must recognize that part of the reason Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei are popular on the world stage is precisely because of Chinese government oppression, or at least the perception of such impression.
I say perception because for those artists not inclined to play chicken with Beijing authorities, which is to say most Chinese artists, such oppression is not part of their experience. Indeed, any casual visitor to north-eastern Beijing can see that this is not an artistic culture blighted by government authoritarianism. Instead, such a visitor will see is the thriving 798 Art Zone, a major tourist destination, and the neighboring Caochangdi, Songzhuang, Blackbridge, and Huangtie art districts all vying for position of next “center” of Chinese art. If global media organizations would taken an in these places a very different picture of the life of the contemporary Chinese artist would emerge. Take for instance Huang Rui, the actual founder of the 798 district and former colleague of Ai Weiwei in the critical avant-garde art movement of the late 1970s. When asked his views on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Huang expressed appreciation for China’s accomplishments and optimism for the direction of contemporary Chinese art. Huang’s interviews were never published. Huang, it should be noted, is no stranger to conflict with the Chinese authorities, and he regularly tests the boundaries of freedom of expression and assembly. Yet, his lapse into something like pride for his country’s achievements earned him censure from Western media outlets not interested in such a message. By contrast, Ai Weiwei’s interviews of early 2008 enjoyed broad coverage, and it was from that point that Ai began to rise as heroic, anti-government activist.
But the ultimate problem with reporting on Ai Weiwei as oppressed artist struggling against faceless government authority is that it’s inaccurate. Much of what Ai has produced in recent years actually targets the ideologically rigid value systems that constant repetition of the heroic artist narrative itself reflects. From photographing a middle finger waved at the US White House, to branding valuable Chinese antiques with Coke and other corporate insignia and then shattering them, to hand carving hundreds of thousands of sunflower seeds to be crushed underfoot, Ai challenges a wide range of assumptions, some of which underlie even his own valuation in the world art market. But this challenge extends beyond the world of art. Ai’s true value now is as a kind of global public intellectual, a place from which he challenges all of us to take more seriously the way we handle information in this transnational and transcultural media marketplace. Let’s hope that sometime soon we will be able to take up his challenge.
– Paul Manfredi