Evan Osnos’ recent piece on China’s censors, stemming from his own interesting book publishing experience there, inevitably brought up another figure closely associated with that country’s relationship with limiting communication—artist Ai Weiwei (deemed a “difficult” identity to include by Osnos’ potential publishers). Perhaps best known for his critical view on aspects of the Chinese government as well as governance in general, he was also involved in the Beijing National Stadium project for the 2008 Olympics, ultimately earning him a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) group that same year.
Fast forward to 2014—CCAA’s latest group exhibit, “15 Years Chinese Contemporary Art,” originally included Ai Weiwei but his name has since been removed. According to the artist and Uli Sigg (a Swiss art collector and co-organizer of the show), local government cultural officials had pressed the Shanghai venue, Power Station of Art, for Ai’s elimination. Ai provided some visual evidence of this by showing a screenshot of a museum employee using a blowdryer on the white washing used to erase his name from the gallery walls. Many speculate that Ai’s subversive body of work continues to present challenges to his own trajectory within China.
I used this same photo as an example during a presentation on art and cultural imperialism at USC Annenberg last Friday (organized by Nick Cull with a wonderful keynote address by James Counts Early of the Smithsonian). I had just returned from a research trip to mainland China, where I spent a good chunk of time exploring the contemporary art scene and meeting young creatives both local as well as from all over the world. Ultimately, I believe that the contemporary arts has an extremely robust and dynamic home in China, especially in such an international city like Shanghai. So of course the news of Ai’s removal from a contemporary art exhibit there was more than disappointing—it simply does not make much sense considering his undeniable contributions to the growth of China’s current art world.
After my talk, a student commented that most people in China do not know who Ai Weiwei is. I agree with that statement. But does it actually matter if the majority of 1.3 billion in a rising country knows, or does not know, of one specific artist? (Update 5/20/14: Osnos also addresses the fallacy of judging Ai Weiwei by “popularity.") Apparently it does matter--to the government officials who arrested and jailed Ai in 2011 as well as those involved in removing a titan from an exhibit of a genre he dominates in many respects. And if you actually engage with the contemporary art communities in China, most of the stakeholders seem to be highly aware of Ai Weiwei and his role in China’s artistic development. Removing his presence in art exhibits there only seems to raise his profile even further with both domestic and international viewers.
Most people in the United States also do not know who Jeff Koons is—or Richard Prince or Kehinde Wiley, for that matter. I could state countless examples of country populaces that are not aware of well known artists who hail from those very communities…this is a norm, not an exception. Art, particularly contemporary art, is still highly niche no matter where you find yourself in the world. Despite the mainstream’s voracious commodification of art particularly in the past decade, art is an alternative to the dominant standard and serves this purpose to different ends depending upon the context.
There are myriad “publics” in a country as vast as China, but a single figure can pose an issue for authorities all on his own. Ai’s work clearly has an impact—just look at all the ways in which he has struggled to have a semblance of freedom of expression while under virtual house arrest the past few years. Fame, or any preoccupation of it, is certainly not the true issue at hand.
Ai Weiwei’s body of work was just one of the cases in my presentation, but his role in the space where the arts and individual rights converge continues to feed my belief that culture is not a zero-sum game. One particular artist’s body of work does not have to perfectly fit into the status quo in order to contribute meaningful outcomes that come to fruition in real life—in fact, it is often quite the opposite. Furthermore, contemporary culture as we know it today is the fluid undercurrent of human society that will always tend to lean towards a net-progressive, net-liberal bottom line.
Ai Weiwei and China aside, another conclusion I learned from the discussion is that a purview on culture limited by a traditionalist or nationalist angle will continue to find itself on the defense as the world continues its globalization. Some may argue that such a stance is lamentable in 2014. Fortunately, the younger generations today—coupled with forward-looking minds from generations before—do have a solid understanding of our inevitably amalgamated future and are not only preparing for it, but are also very much looking forward to it.