Ai Weiwei’s Notes About
a World That Needs to End
‘You know, if they can do this to me, they can do this to anybody.’ That’s part of one of the most revealing aphorisms of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s latest book, aptly named Weiwei-isms, edited by Larry Warsh and published by the Princeton University Press.
It encapsulates the three main characters inhabiting his quotes: himself, the Chinese government, and everybody else. It also offers a glimpse of the oversized ambitions of this little book: to discuss the state’s exacerbated role on the lives of his fellow citizens.
Its format and fluidity are in fact deceptive, as they mask Ai’s larger proposition as an artist at odds with his country’s idea of society, and with a great many Chinese, who may hardly understand the motivations behind his avowed intention to speak for them.
The quotes, organized in themes such as freedom of expression, art and activism, power and morality, and the digital world, may at times resort to short, staccato-like sentences, just like on Tweeter, a social tool Ai’s mastered and praises in the book.
Others convey his ambivalence about having unwillingly become an international personality. His constant jabs at China’s authoritarian regime often betray bemusement at being singled out by it. His global exposure, thus, is both a bliss and a curse.
‘A land that rejects the truth, barricades itself against change, and lacks the spirit of freedom, is hopeless,‘ he denounces. Even though not one to play the martyr card, Ai nevertheless relishes in a self-appointed role of spokesperson for the voiceless.
‘If there’s one who’s not free, then I’m not free. If there’s one who suffers, then I suffer,’ may sound a tad messianic. But it’s also a gutsy stand, in that it ignites a long overdue discussion about the politics of individual liberties in his country.
HARDSHIP & TURNING POINTS
When Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, his father Ai Qing, a well known poet, was facing a public campaign of defamation that was to last some 20 years, and forced the family into a series of painful stints at China’s infamous labor camps.
The hardships of those formative years is clearly part of Weiwei’s rebellious nature and unguarded resolve. Still, he could have become just the successful artist he was destined to be, out of his sheer talent and academic qualifications.
Chances are, we’d still be hearing about his work by now. His three books on Chinese art, his praised architectural interventions, and solo exhibitions around the globe would all suffice to grant him a prevalent niche in the contemporary art world.
It was not to be, and many identify two events in 2008 as turning points in Ai’s trajectory: the Sichuan earthquake in May, and the Olympics Games in Beijing, in August. Both had a profound impact on his work as an artist, and his sense of moral accountability.
The official tally of the dead in the 8.0 magnitude quake is close to 70,000, with almost 20,000 more missing, and hundreds of thousands injured. Among them, some 6,000 children, who were crushed by the collapse of their school buildings.
As it turned out, most of those kids would have survived if such buildings had better construction standards. Ai was among many volunteers who took part in the recovery process. When it became clear to them that official corruption was responsible for the tragedy’s extent, everyone became natural targets of political persecution, including Ai.
AN INCONVENIENT VOICE
‘I started to understand very clearly the character of local government. They will do anything. You will never really wrongly accuse them of anything because they will do everything,’ he wrote.
One of his most striking works of art, Remembering, was the 5,000 custom-made backpacks, created to honor the children of the collapsed schools, which was exhibited in Munich in 2009. The line written on them, ‘She’s been happily living in this world for seven years‘ is a direct quote of one of the parents of the victims. It comes as no surprise, then, what happened with the Olympics.
Having collaborated in the design of the stunning Bird’s Nest, the official stadium, he had a fallout with the organizers, who were heavily invested by China’s Politburo as the occasion to display the country’s political might and technological prowess.
‘The 2008 Olympics has created an illusion of China to the public and to the outside world. It is so fantastic, so unreal, that the entire meaning of the games is being distorted,’ he wrote in The Guardian. Other quotes openly criticize the event too.
At the same time, a series of internationally acclaimed shows abroad increased his profile as an original and independent thinker, definitions not known to enjoy much regard within China’s inner circle of power.
From then on, Ai became a target of constant political harassment, with personal aggressions and threats to his life that took precedence over his perceived importance as an artist. But then, ‘Everything is art. Everything is politics‘ had already become a favorite motto, and a sign of his acceptance of the role he was to exercise afterwards.
The pressure culminated last year, when he was arrested at the Beijing Airport, and spent 81 days in captivity. The Chinese authorities charged him with tax evasion, seeking a penalty of two million dollars. A campaign by his supporters helped raise funds for a second and final appeal, which he was barred from attending, and that he ultimately lost.
NOT EXACTLY A MODERN DAVID
‘The government computer has one button: delete.‘ It’d be insulting to claim that Ai’s been nothing but a shrewd architect of his own celebrity. No sane person would’ve chosen the kind of uncertain and dangerous life that he’s been living in the past 10 years. It’d be sobering enough to just recall the anonymous lives of countless Chinese dissidents, whose voices are no longer heard, and whose fate is unknown.
But for someone constantly under threat of obliteration, fighting one of the most powerful regimes in the world, Ai’s has been wearing the mantle with rare dignity. In that sense, the World Wide Web has been his invaluable ally.
‘Only with the Internet can a peasant I have never met hear my voice and I can learn what’s on his mind. A fairy tale has come true,’ is another of the Weiwei-isms quotes. He’s the first to admit that social networks such as Twitter, and the Chinese sites that legally or illegally picked them up for domestic consumption, have been instrumental to enhance his reach.
For him, Confucius, Shakespeare, and the Chairman Mao, all would be using the medium. The subtle political quip here is, whereas the wise Chinese who lived five centuries before the common era and the Bard of England, both would’ve hardly be limited by Twitter’s number of characters allowed, in order to express themselves, Mao’s ‘quotations are all within 140 words.’
ART AS A QUESTIONING WEAPON
For all the weighty issues that comprise the Princeton edition, and the obvious implications arising from the confluence of artistic expression and political activism, it’s important to notice the presence of an underlining sense of humor permeating his quotes.
Tweets like, ‘Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It’s probably the only sport I enjoy,’ or ‘When I returned to China, I didn’t have a U.S. passport, a wife, or a university degree. From the Chinese point of view, I was a total failure,’ denote a firm disposition to not renounce his humorous vein.
And that’s the mark of an artist, not of a political leader. In other words, Ai Weiwei‘s more inclined at protest as a form of self expression, rather than choosing a more mainstream venue, in the illustrious company of famed Chinese dissidents, such as jailed Peace Nobel Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo, Hu Jia, Liao Yiwu, Chen Guangcheng, and others.
‘Not an inch of the land belongs to you, but every inch could easily imprison you.‘