A visual representation of political dissent

Professor Louise Higgins reviews Ai WeiWei's exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Ai WeiWei: is he an artist, a political activist, a celebrity or a self-publicist? Or perhaps he is all of these?

Ai WeiWei’s artistic family background and early negative experiences with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shaped him into the artist he is today. In China, given names are created by parents who often choose words that are significant or aspirational for them. 'Wei' means 'future'. When growing up, how salient was his name in making him want to change the future or leave a mark on the future of art or the politics of China?

Ai’s view of art is that it is a means of awakening people to the need for change rather than to beauty. He wants to use art to make his fellow Chinese citizens aware of their lack of freedom particularly freedom of speech though he knows that many Chinese people would rather concentrate on earning money, buying a house and a car, and getting a good education for their children. Ai demands transparency and accountability from the State. He makes great use of the Web and social media, particularly Twitter, to call for this. Chinese characters are more like words than letters, so with 140 it is possible to say quite a lot. Twitter and Facebook are theoretically banned in China but many people can get round this.

At one point, Ai was spending most of his time writing blogs and micro-blogs. Although his dissent was mostly online rather than off-line activity, unsurprisingly the CCP did not like his activities and he was placed under arrest. When he  became aware that he was being watched by the authorities who had surveillance cameras all around the outside of his home, in a clever and witty response, he set up web cams in every room and broadcast his own reality show 24/7, until he was told to close the site down. Several of the installations in the exhibition refer to this, such as the carved marble CCTV camera, and the peep show boxes showing his imprisonment.  (I dare say all this takes place under the surveillance of cameras at the Royal Academy for our “safety” as the trains and stations put it.)

Ai uses a range of materials to put across his message – timber, glass, marble, tea, sand, bones and metal. Some other Chinese artists think he wastes materials, such as the lovely antique tables he has sawn up and the old pottery jars he has overpainted, but as he grew up he must have seen the Red Guards destroying every traditional Chinese art object they could find during the Cultural Revolution. Some artists admire the vast size of his installations, reminiscent of ancient installations like the Terracotta Army. For example, one hall is filled with rusty iron rods removed from the rubble after the Sichuan earthquake in Wenchuan in 2008. China has a history of terrible tragedies. In the past the Government tried to keep them quiet in a way that is no longer possible with modern communication technology. After the earthquake many volunteers poured in to help (Higgins, Xiang & Song, 2010), including Ai WeiWei and his team, who wanted to highlight the poor building practices and corruption that made many of the buildings unsafe. They collected the twisted iron bars from the substandard buildings, straightened them and laid them out in a pattern. They also made lists of the names of all the thousands of children killed in the earthquake and these have been placed on the surrounding walls.

In one area is a huge jumbled up pile of ceramic crabs (or “he xie” which is a homophone for “harmonious”). The CCP is always exhorting a harmonious society. In the corner, one single crab seems to be starting to climb alone up the wall. I wonder, does Ai see himself as this crab leading the harmonious masses into a freer future?

- Reviewed by Louise T. Higgins, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, The University of Chester. The exhibition runs until 13 December at the Royal Academy of Arts. 

Higgins, L.T., Gao, X., Zhu, S. (2010) The development of psychological intervention after disaster in China.  Asia Pacific Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 1:1, 77-86.


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