Reevaluating Ai Weiwei: Guest Commentary

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


    1. Thanks for the comment, Gregory. I interpreted the essay as putting the onus on us collectively to make some kind of a conclusion about Ai, which is one reason this is a difficult piece.

      1. before i ever knew his name i saw a picture of this work “the fountain of light” and was blown away at the mystical purity of the expression and form. enough to search for who had possibly made it. and to find out it was a modern realization of a 80 year-old unrealized work of a russian monument designer only added to the awe.

        the next encounter, the photo of the dropping vase, it seemed a perfect artistic comment on what china is doing to its own past, resonant with symbolic meaning. the first flip the bird photo i saw was in front of the white house, not the forbidden city one, and i thought, finally! i am not actually sure how that would go over in america if done by an american artist in recent years. they banned a chocolate christ at a nyc gallery!

        followed him on twitter, the chengdu confrontation was nearly live-tweeted (and in my intuitive interpretation, his recent detention stems in some way from that, somebody wanted revenge and called in a favor.)

        so we can say i am biased towards anything ai by an aesthetic taste, enough so that i arranged a trip to london to see the opening night of the tate modern sunflower installation. i found seeds in my pocket that arrived there when lying on the “beach”, and tracked out of the room, up the stairs, and even outdoors in the first days, what a cool thing. still have a few.

        there is much obviously agenda-driven western “news” reporting that i come across about china, but the ai wei wei detention story left a very sour taste in my mouth because it really felt like a government taking revenge (which all governments do). i talked to chinese people in the shanghai art world and they pretty much predicted how it played out, and that the reasons for his detention were of course political. they know their system intimately.

        so my conclusions, great artist, fearful government, and the man has a karmic role to play in the greater china society, and he has no real choice about that. a lightning rod. we will see many such figures, famous or not, as the “arab spring” becomes a “global spring” over the next eighteen months.

        the world is turning, and institutions everywhere are too slow to adjust.

        thanks for you time, enjoy,


        1. Gregory, thanks very much for what, to me, is probably one of the wide-ranging and thoughtful comments I have ever received on the blog. I very much agree with both your instincts (esp. as regards origin of Ai’s detention) and assessment of the situation. Seeds of change!

        2. Gregory,
          Returning to your original point about ‘for or against him,’ and with all due respect, this is the kind of thinking that gets us into the rut that I’m trying to get us out of. That’s hardly the point, and for what its worth, I consider the man to be brilliant in many respects. But he is clearly political, and political to the detriment of a kind of ‘space for art’ that needs to exist outside of zero-sum ‘for-or-against’ rhetoric that most discussion of Ai’s art inspires, in English, anyway. Call me “drifty,” but static thinking about the man and his work is not, to my mind, doing his work justice. The vase example, in fact, another case in point. I rather disagree that that gesture refers to China’s destruction of its own heritage. China’s central authority is actually considerably more invested in preserving (albeit what it considers important) artistic culture in China. Writing from the United States, where daily we hear of plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, I at least don’t feel we’re in a good position to criticize China on this score. And besides, I think Ai in that gesture is at least equally referring to the power of global capitalism (enabled of course by CCP, but not by any stretch originating there) to turn all material culture into commodity plain and simple.
          Much more in your valuable post to respond to, but perhaps just this one: it is instructive that Chinese people knew exactly how this would “play out,” as you put it. The next question is whether or not it plays out to any benefit, particularly for people in China. Unfortunately for those of us who like to blog on contemporary China a definitive answer to this question is unattainable — any of one of us can find people to affirm or deny any given point of view. In the long run, evaluation of Ai Weiwei’s political performance art (which is what I call it), will depend on the answer to that question.
          Thanks again for your post. I do enjoy the opportunity to exchange views in this format.

  1. hi paulmanfedi …

    the “for or against?” pov was my reaction to the destructive rut of “balanced journalism” .. better for me to grasp what the writer thinks, than to get “both sides of the story”, which is manipulative, very linear, and always false. so i ranted …

    for politically-defined people, everything is political … for the non-political, nothing is. we get the world we see. and if one is interested in social justice, there are ways to work that field that are political, and ways to work that field which bypass politics … philanthropy, to energy work, and art, film, writing, spreading ideas. i think of ai wei wei as being a person sensitive to the energetic environment he lives in, and simply responds via art, action, or words.

    i disagree about china and preserving the past … there are some wealthy people (everywhere) who have the taste and means to appreciate the past, but the government is not part of that process, except for possible exploitation. there is nothing old left in china. if it looks old, it has been remodeled/”restored” and it is 30 kuai admission. cultural identity = national pride, and lacks the subtle energy and the inner meaning that was once an innate part of the practice, process, and preservation of traditional chinese values.

    (my favorite website, it’s in english, on ancient chinese thought is, and my favorite piece there is , brilliant wisdom for contemporary times as well)

    your last paragraph … there is an old buddhist concept, that there is “no independent origination”, and i really like it for understanding the world we live in. and there are rhythms at play that are centuries long … we swim in a river that has many currents. “benefit” is something of a mis-focused concept … this human race grows slowly, we are in a huge shift now, examples like ai weiwei can be inspiring for those whose work is transformation, we all together are creating “benefit” within the scope of our value-system …. and meanwhile life does what it does.

    enjoy, gregorylent

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