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Assignment 1: Ai Weiwei
M.Des 1.1 Name: Harshal Desai
Lecturer: Dr Kelvin Lee & Arabella Pasquette
Date of Submission 7/21/2011
Word Count: 3545
This research paper focuses on the life and work of Chinese born artist Ai Weiwei. Notoriously famous for his political stance against the Chinese Government, Ai Weiwei has expressed his viewpoints through his art for well over twenty years. We will look into the design movements during his period, how he managed to create his art, and how did he use it to its maximum potential. This paper has been divided into three parts. The first part focuses on the origins of Ai Weiwei, his introduction in the art world, and the design methods and artists that influenced him most. We will also take an indepth look at the artist’s design process, highlighting in general, some of his early works as examples. The second part of the paper focuses on critically evaluating his design methods. This is further subdivided into three of Weiwei’s famous designs over the decade. Each artwork will be assessed in terms of concept, method of design, and impact on society. The third part is a summarized compilation of our results about the artist and his work. Here we draw our personal opinions about the artist, whether his methods are logical and effective, and what we have personally learned from this project.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY .............................................................................................................. 1 AI WEIWEI: An INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................... 3 A BRIEF HISTORY ....................................................................................................................4 Links to Art movements ....................................................................................................... 5 Ai Weiwei’s Design Process................................................................................................. 7 CRITICAL ANALYSIS ................................................................................................................11 Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn. (A solo exhibition) ........................................................... 11 Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds ..............................................................................................14 Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals – Zodiac heads................................................................. 16 CONCLUSION .........................................................................................................................18 Works Cited ............................................................................................................................19 Works Referenced .................................................................................................................20 IMAGE REFERENCES ...............................................................................................................21
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AI WEIWEI: AN INTRODUCTION
An artist, photographer, designer, writer and architect, are some of the many ways to describe Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Famously known for speaking out his mind, Ai Weiwei created many works of art that reflect on the flaws of the Chinese Government. (Meacham, 2008) Dubbed as the “Andy Warhol of China”, Ai has easily lived up to that name. He is not just an artist, but also a publisher, a restaurateur and a very obsessive blogger. Originally influenced by the surreal DADAist movement, Ai’s works consisted of various sculptures made out of reshaping odd materials like shoes and cloth hangers. It was only a few years ago that Ai started using his art as a political reference, even though it was not his original intention. (Cooke, 2008) Ai Weiwei has been quite candid about his views on democracy and the lack thereof in China; however he does so more through his actions than just words. In an interview with John Sunyer of NewStatesman, Ai stated,
I became an artist to escape the totalitarian conditions of china. I wanted to escape the flawed system.
Regardless, Ai’s fame has definitely made a big impact in the world, so much so that even has a planet named after him (NASA:83598 Aiweiwei ) Like any great artist, to appreciate their work we must first look into their origins.
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A BRIEF HISTORY
Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing was an infamous Chinese poet who lived a very controversial life. During the Cultural Revolution, China banished intellectuals like artists, writers and poets who dare speak their mind. Ai Qing and his family was exiled to a labour camp when Weiwei was a just a young boy. To add insult, Ai Qing and his wife were forced to clean the public toilets. Weiwei recalls his father accepting his fate without complaint, stating, “For years I didn’t know who cleaned our toilets. Now I know”. Ai Weiwei recalls it wasn’t just the shoddy living conditions or lack of food that made his family’s life difficult. Ai Qing was banished simply because he was an intellectual artist, labelled a criminal when all he did was speak his mind. The government marked him as an “enemy” even though his poetry wasn’t related to politics…and there was no choice but to accept fate.
In late 1978, Ai Qing was exonerated by the Government issuing a simple sentence saying “it was a mistake”. There was however, no formal apology. It was as if Chinese government didn’t accept responsibility for their poor judgement, and it could have been the precursor to Ai Weiwei’s constant jabbing at the system. (Cooke, 2008)
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LINKS TO ART MOVEMENTS
Ai Weiwei moved to America at age 24, in early 1981. Weiwei enrolled in Parsons School of Design where he learned about art history in general. He studied various artists and was particularly influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. It was the first time he recognized art as being a lifestyle, an attitude. Weiwei was quite attracted to the concept behind DADAism. The freedom to express himself anyway he pleases was a welcomed change and he began experimenting with his own style. His early works consisted of a violin with the shovel attached to the handle, and a coat hanger morphed to give a profile of Duchamp himself.
Figure 1: Duchamp Hanger i
Ai quit the school shortly and continued his life picking up odd jobs to finance himself. It was a hard life for him and the lack of money often resulted in him moving from place to place. He did paint a lot during that time, but due to constant relocating and having to throw art away in the process, Weiwei eventually shifted to creating sculptures. (Aloi, 2006) It wasn’t until 1993 that Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing and got fascinated in classical Chinese art. He began to admire the skills of the traditional craftsmen and was appalled to find their creations being sold in flea markets. Ai Weiwei, already influenced by Duchamp, used his skills to merge the current consumer culture with ancient Chinese art.
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He began acquiring priceless artefacts from the past and adding his own neoDadaism style to it, creating a hybrid that shows the two opposite ideas of classical rich culture vs. materialistic modern trends. One major change that happened with Ai Weiwei personally was his change in art direction. The first ten years in the Art industry, he produced works based on random concepts. After his return to Beijing, all his artwork generally had the context of China as a starting point. (Arcadia University Art Gallery, 2010) His art quickly evolved to having a lot of political context, admittedly unintentional at first but once Ai Weiwei realized he could challenge the management’s principles via his art, a lot of his future works were created solely to point out the flaws in the Chinese government. Critic David Coggins quoted his work as,
ultimately compassionate form of provocation to the global consumer trends.
Realizing that as an artist, he was granted certain freedoms that most of his countrymen can’t have, Ai Weiwei decided to use them to their maximum potential by expressing his views through his art.
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AI WEIWEI’S DESIGN PROCESS
Ai Weiwei’s work is too diverse, but over the past few years his centralized theme has always revolved around Chinese relics. He often destroys “priceless” artefacts but at the same time, creates something new out of it. Weiwei mentions he’s not breaking something just for the fun of it. For him, it is a chance to explore limitless opportunities to create something unique, to understand the cycle of construction and destruction, to destroy something that was priceless and to create something out of the pieces that will be equally priceless. Two of his infamous examples were when, in 1995 he took an old Han Dynasty urn and painted a Coca Cola logo over it, and when he took three sequential photos of himself dropping another urn from the same dynasty. In 2006, he acquired 40 vases dating back to the Neolithic era and repainted them with bright primary colors. (Meacham, 2008) His exhibit titled Fragments, consisted of an odd looking canopy, constructed entirely of material acquired from Qing Dynasty temples.
Figure 2: Fragments ii
In 2007, the project Fairytale, one of his two contributions to “Documenta 12”, consisted of gathering 1001 Chinese citizens via Twitter and bringing them to Kassel, Germany. His second contribution, Template, was a giant arch shaped gate
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created out of doors and windows from buildings dating back to the Ming Dynasty. (Ai Weiwei - Fairytale, 2008) Perhaps his most controversial work, the Bird’s Nest shaped stadium created for the Beijing Olympics. Ai Weiwei was asked to collaborate on the design from Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron. It was only their request that made Ai consider it, stating that he would have denied it had the request come from the Chinese government. (Meacham, 2008) However, the controversy came when in an interview; Ai announced he had ‘no interest’ in the Olympics or the propaganda behind it. He clarified that he loves the design and construction of the stadium which was a difficult feat to achieve in the short amount of time. Ai refused to promote it any further because he believed the structure reflected wrong values. (Cooke, 2008)
Figure 3: 'The Birds Nest' Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics iii
Slamming the Olympics by calling it a “pretend smile” situation, Ai Weiwei explained that Olympic Games held without freedom and against the will of the people are nonsense. Strangely enough, while the world was buzzing at the aftermath of his comments, Ai had already moved on, saying “I don’t care about it anymore. To me, it’s already the past” (Chinese architecture slams Olympic "Pretend Smile", 2007)
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It was one of Ai’s signature traits. While most artists prefer to continue generating a buzz about their work, Ai shrugs it off, as if it was nothing special. His influence in political matters grew in his work “So Sorry”, a title referring to the thousands of apologies conveyed by the government, businesses and corporations worldwide as a response to the catastrophes and crimes, though, without bearing the penalties or the need to admit, let alone repair their blunders. (Dercon & Lorz, 2009) Ai produced an exhibit titled Remembering, constructed from nine thousand children’s backpacks to spell out a sentence, “she lived happily on this earth for seven years” in chinese characters. This quote was spoken by one of the mothers who lost their child in the Sichuan earthquake. The concept emerged when Ai Weiwei visited Sichuan in search for answers on why only some schools collapsed whereas others next to it remained. After being constantly ignored by the government, Ai decided to erect a ten-meter high, hundred meter long display of that one resonating statement along with a giant picture of his face against a red background, as if to declare his claim over the work. (Weiwei, 2009) Ai Weiwei is also passionate about photography, often capturing Black and White images of his environment. His most notable work was amusingly titled “A study of Perspective” where he travelled to various countries and photographed the famous monuments while flipping them off.
Figure 4: Study of Perspective iv
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Currently, Ai Weiwei’s photos of his time in New York City from 1983 to 1993 are featured in an exhibition presented by Asia Society. The exhibition opened on 29th June 2011, shortly after his release from prison on June 22nd 2011. The gallery showcases 227 handpicked photos from Ai’s archive of 10000. (Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs, 2011) Ai Weiwei quoted
The New York I knew, no longer exists. Looking back on the past, I can see that these photographs are facts, but not necessarily true. The present always surpasses the past and the future will not care about ‘today’
When asked if his involvement in politics has overtaken his interest in art, Weiwei simply stated that his art works best when there is a core political theme subtly hidden within. Weiwei considers it his responsibility to speak up for the masses. (Sunyer, 2010) One thing we noticed is about Ai Weiwei’s artwork is his captivation with clay and the ability to encapsulate China’s identity into his work, more often as the primary theme. He considers China’s dictatorial regime as his medium, comparing it to what the bicycle wheel was for Duchamp and what the picture of Mao was for Andy Warhol. We will further analyse his design process by selecting three of his most famous works and critically evaluate them in terms of concept, design, and impact.
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The most notable artworks of Ai Weiwei have been his three exhibition displays featuring his artwork using historic urns and pots, the well-known sunflower seed display that was showcased in many museums and also featured in TED Talks. Lastly, the current exhibit representing the 12 heads of the Chinese zodiac, are the three artworks that we will scrutinize. We have specifically avoided analysis of the Bird Nest Stadium simply because it has been extensively criticized by the media and have more political connotations rather than artistic ones.
AI WEIWEI: DROPPING THE URN. (A SOLO EXHIBITION)
This was one of Weiwei’s first solo exhibitions outside New York City and was heavily fixated on his radical use (or misuse) of historic clay vessels and porcelain urns. The oldest pieces in the exhibit were 7000 year old Neolithic urns; dating back to 5000 B.C. Ai Weiwei dipped all fifty one of them into bright vats of paint, saying the colors will look more appealing inside this contemporary styled museum.
Figure 5: Neolithic Vases v
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He also took two 2000 year old Han Dynasty urns and hand painted a Coca Cola logo on one, while taking three sequential shots of him dropping the other urn on the floor.
Figure 6: Han Dynasty Urns vi
Conceptually, Ai was trying to merge the consumerist trends with the cultural heritage, and in the process of destruction and creation, show how both can equally valuable and worthless at the same time. What seems like destroying a historical priceless object, both in terms of its financial and cultural value, is converted into a contemporary work of art which has near equal value and reflects the modern culture, and yet often deemed worthless. In a sense it’s almost a comical exploration of trying to figure out what makes an object truly valuable. Beijing based critic, Philip Tinari commented that Ai Weiwei’s exhibit could also represent China’s connection with its past, where they were well known for destroying priceless historical artefacts on a routine basis and how they have adopted a more materialistic lifestyle. (Arcadia University Art Gallery, 2010) In terms of design we can note a mixture of the neo-Dadaism style paired with Ai Weiwei’s own sense of minimalism. For him, it was nothing more than a playful exploration of creating new works of art from the old ones, a process of rebirth. The political connotations were later made by the media. The sheer audacity to paint over a 7000 year old urn, yet to retain some of the original details clearly shows Weiwei gave considerable thought to his project. Each of his work in the gallery showed a perfect amalgam of the original art and the newly hand painted one.
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Watching the exhibit as a whole, we can also notice Ai’s curious fascination with Chinese clay art. There is a timeline hidden in his work showing the different eras of clay evolving from simple vessels to stone urns to refined porcelain vases. Ai Weiwei also wanted to bring the skills of the traditional craftsmen into the limelight and commissioned a few highly talented artisans from the Jingdezhen village to create exact replicas of vases from the Qing Dynasty. He then placed the originals among the replicas and it was impossible to differentiate the two without the help of carbon dating. The idea was to not only to show that the traditional designs can be replicated with ease, but also emphasize on the concept of true “originality”. However, the impact of his work had mixed reactions, like all his work in general. Whereas some were delighted with the concept projected by the exhibits, others were not so kind. Many believed Ai Weiwei was a madman to willingly tarnish such precious relics just for the sake of it. It was bad enough that he “ruined” the value of a Han Dynasty urn by painting the Coca Cola logo, but the sequential image of him dropping the urn did not sit well with the Chinese government, considering Ai Weiwei to be mocking the Chinese culture. While the debate continued whether this should be deemed as art or vandalism, Ai Weiwei already moved on towards his next project.
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AI WEIWEI: SUNFLOWER SEEDS
One of Ai Weiwei’s biggest projects, enlisting over 1600 Chinese artisans to create a little over 100 million porcelain seeds. The floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine hall was covered in a deep layer of these miniature creations. Each sunflower seed was moulded and painted individually, bearing 2-4 gentle brush strokes. Ai Weiwei welcomed visitors to walk on his display, experience the crackling sounds when they walk across the surface, or pick up the seeds and let them meditatively slip across their fingers, feeling their texture.
Figure 7: Sunflower Seeds vii
Conceptually, there can be several interpretations behind this installation. The historical perspective of creating “Sunflower” seeds would be during the period of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was associated with the sun, and the public as sunflowers, gazing lovingly at his face. Also, the seeds were a common snack item in China, often consumed in company of friends. (Higgins, 2010) A more modern day analogy comes from the vast scale of the exhibit, where each seed could represent the people of China as a growing population, where the success of impact will be stronger as a group rather than individual efforts. In terms of design, Ai Weiwei focused more on the actual sensory experience, creating a form of live interacting art. While the individual seeds are plain in design, having barely 2-4 strokes on them, each seed was still unique (suggesting each Chinese citizen is also unique). It was the ability to interact with the audience that made this display a big success. (Kleutghen, 2010) The project showed the more artistic side of Ai, still adhering to a centralized Chinese theme but less focused on the political aspects. Page | 14
Ai also compared the entire project to Twitter, his favourite social networking site, stating that it was
“A vast sea of ideas and communication contributed by individual people”
With regard to its impact on society, there weren’t many negative connotations associated with this display. People were fascinated with the idea and were eager to explore the installation. Unfortunately, for the Tate Modern exhibit, they were denied as the management banned people from walking over the porcelain seeds, claiming it a health hazard due to the “dust” created by walking over them. Despite visitors stating on the BBC network that they don’t mind taking the risk, Tate Modern restricted access and only allowed an aerial view of the seeds, which, as Reporter Gompertz commented sarcastically, was as interesting as watching a carpark. (Gompertz, 2010) Thankfully it wasn’t the case in the other areas where this installation was displayed and overall, it was a marvellous display.
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AI WEIWEI: CIRCLE OF ANIMALS – ZODIAC HEADS.
While Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese Government, his exhibitions continued according to schedule with the opening of his most recent display “Circle of Animals – Zodiac Heads”. This was Weiwei’s first public display and kept outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The opening was greeted with several media reporters including 12 personal representatives of Ai Weiwei reciting quotes from his blog. The exhibition was a series of the twelve heads of the creatures of the Chinese Zodiac. Each head was made of bronze, roughly four feet in size, weighing over 300kg, and set on a six foot bronze base.
Figure 8: Zodiac Heads viii
Conceptually, Ai Weiwei came up with the inspiration from the original heads designed in the 18th century for Manchu emperor Qian Long, as part of a famous fountain clock. Apparently, each head would spout water for two hours a day, Page | 16
which explains why all the mouths are open. However, the heads were looted by British and French troops in 1860. They were eventually lost until some of them resurfaced back in 2000. The Chinese government managed to retrieve seven of them, although the remaining five are still lost. Ai Weiwei considered this and duplicated the seven heads based on their original details, and recreated the remaining five from his own imagination. You can actually notice the distinction, particularly in the rooster, tiger and dragon heads which are quite ferocious and more ornate than their counterparts. However, Ai did mention in an interview that this information is irrelevant and makes no contribution towards the public enjoying the display. (Smith, 2011) In terms of design, the six foot bronze base could suggest a lotus stem, as is popular in Chinese culture. However, another way to look at it would be the heads are impaled on six foot long stakes, referencing to an obscure dark humor of beheading the zodiac. The latter is further enhanced with the fact that the heads weren’t displayed in a circle (despite the title of the exhibit), but were instead placed on either side of the fountain, facing north, as if to suggest a more dominant approach. With regards to the impact on society, since Ai Weiwei was detained at the time, many claimed this exhibit as a means of quiet defiance. It was a means to show the Chinese Government that Ai Weiwei’s work will continue influencing people worldwide with or without his presence. Considering this is a relatively new exhibit, it remains to be seen how the Chinese regime puts their negative spin on this installation.
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Ai Weiwei has definitely outspoken against the Chinese Government through his artwork. Evan Osnos, reporter from the New Yorker claimed that Weiwei jumps at the opportunity to play the rebel, and readily converts the complexity of modern China into black and white absolutes in order to gain foreign sympathy. Some people admire his work, others say he simply wants to make a fuss and do not acknowledge his tactics. The fact that Ai Weiwei prefers to exhibit his art outside China, allowing foreigners to reflect their society’s morals upon the Chinese lifestyle only ignites more criticism from the Government. (Osnos, 2010) However, according to us, this is the correct approach as China needs to reexamine its role as a nation and more importantly, as a GLOBAL nation. It is no longer a closed society, and with rapid globalization of cultures, it cannot afford to stay out of the loop for long. That being said, we do however find Ai Weiwei’s art rather one-tracked. Despite each new exhibit being unique, there’s always the same underlying inspiration of recycling old Chinese relics into new works, or cross examining China’s past with the present. In his fervour to improve China, it seems he has forgotten that a true artist constantly evolves. This was well visible in the first ten years of his career back in New York City, where he created a multitude of different sculptures, each having their own unique theme. In fact, one must wonder whether Ai Weiwei’s life has become a work of art itself. The constant jabbing at the government does appear like an overdrawn performance. Whether it is a good thing or bad depends on an individual’s perspective, after all, Ai Weiwei is definitely stirring change in the world through his art, and eventually THAT is the true nature of art. Personally, we think the world could use more artists like him. Ai Weiwei will continue his innocent defiance against the Chinese regime and will keep inspiring the future generations to speak up for their freedoms in hope that one day China can truly become a democratic nation, and all courtesy of an “intellectual artist”. Page | 18
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