Great arguments erupted recently when police raided an inner city gallery in Sydney to seize some controversial photographs. Regardless of where we as a society draw the line beyond which censorship seems justified, this controversy showed that any attempt to express an unorthodox view is fraught with political dangers.
It is a moot point whether artists face greater difficulties where a government specifies boundaries and punishes transgressions ruthlessly, or where more subtle means are employed to enforce conformity to officially sanctioned standards.
By any measure Ai Weiwei is an extraordinary artist. His work has enormous political significance both for China and the rest of the world. The man who designed the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing, Ai now condemns the way that the government of China has turned the 2008 Games into a propaganda exercise. Ai’s international stature is probably the only reason he has remained untouched and “undisciplined” by the regime. We should all be thankful for that.
Ai’s exhibition Under Construction at the Campbelltown Arts Centre (free entry 10-4 daily from May 2 until June 29) reveals a keen sense of humour and a warm humanity. Ai uses a wide range of media from the found object through to film, from paint in two dimensions to timber in three. His refreshing humour is obvious in the ways that he teasingly juxtaposes contrasting concepts. His compassion is clear in the sympathy that he shows towards to the powerless generally, and particularly towards China’s forgotten rural people.
An abiding theme of Ai’s art is the conflict between China’s traditional values and forced modernisation. A beautiful earthenware urn is emblazoned with the familiar red Coca Cola signature. The roof beams of a demolished temple lie abandoned, an indictment of progress. The scent of a ton of Pu Er tea is pressed into a cube on a fork lift palette. Traffic rushes towards the floor on screens occupying three walls around the viewer. Dozens of travel cases in black and white cowhide colours sit patiently in a mass on the gallery floor. These are travellers made into objects to ensure the smoothness of the journey.
In a piece called “Perspective” the traditional artist’s thumb on forearm extended towards the subject is replaced by the now familiar rudely gesturing middle finger before sites of power such as the White House. A series of three photographs shows a man dropping a vase. It is an allegory for something else slipping through the fingers as we watch, powerless to intervene.
A feature of the exhibition is the marble chair commissioned by the local Arts Centre. It is an object of beauty, but cold, hard and seemingly uncomfortable. Its traditional lines seem to the modern eye to lack utility, a reminder of how easily we can forget our roots and lose the advantages of folk wisdom.
The film Documenta, reputed to run for three hours, highlights Ai’s work and his place in Chinese art. The film’s images are stark and uncensored. In one set of scenes, artists, poets and writers of political opinions, discuss their role in China. They speak of alienation from society, about the failure of the education system and about their persecution. Their bohemianism echoes the disaffection of western intellectual elites of the 1930s and 1950s. The images of these artists show clearly the alienation of which they speak. Drunkenness and relationship instability are endemic. One poet is physically ill and says that this is a regular occurrence. He implies that his position is a disease.
The scenes immediately following are a marked contrast. The camera is taken to remote Guangxi where, Ai explains, some women do not even have names until officialdom demands that they be identified. The unheated school has a mud floor but the camera finds a family joyful and relaxed as they discuss participation in a documentary project. Ai explains that non-expression can be a form of expression, implying that “ordinary” lives can be art.
Ai Weiwei might well be the most significant Chinese individual living today.
His work and his courage enable him to transcend the heavy constraints that bind over a billion people in his homeland. In the clichés of international politics, China has always been thought of as a stirring dragon. Although the country was stable enough throughout the 20th century, this stability was achieved through enormous internal turmoil and injustice.
The country is now experiencing changes which seem to be much less amenable to authoritarian direction. As China has some one quarter of the earth’s population, it will affect future global political and environmental developments profoundly.
The Mandarin-fluent Prime Minister Rudd has correctly stressed the importance of understanding China and working at our relations with that country. There is no doubt that in this endeavour, trade, diplomacy and sporting movements have valuable roles to play. It might well however, that the work of Ai Weiwei will prove to be the most significant contribution to an improved understanding of contemporary China.
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