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A R T S & C U LT U R E

Ai WeiWei

BY PDRaiG BElton

Where is Ai Weiwei?
it would be a very good time for Chinese artist ai Weiwei with installations at the tate modern and somerset House in london, and Grand army Plaza in manhattanif only he were out of prison to see any of it. if China is by 2024 to overtake the united states as the worlds principal economy, it may be a very different nation that arrives at that mark. Which is to say, ai Weiwei could well prove, to rob a word, a vanguard. His studio has been destroyedwhich happened as this magazine attempted to arrange a visit to it. the decommissioned military factories though remain, and their warehouses which (China already does irony) sprouted the thriving artistic village of the 798 art District, nuzzled between northern Beijings 4th and 5th Ring Roads in Dshanziwhich, if all western cities are permitted a Chinatown, returns the favour as shoreditchtown. it is in retrospect that many of his more outrageous statementsphotographing himself in 1995 smashing a Han Dynasty urn, decorating another with the imprinted insigne of Cokeattain a deeper signification as comments on disregard paid to history, and of exchanging a civilisation for a national brand.

He provides his own exegetic in a blog he kept from 2006 to 2009, which mit Press collated, translated and released in april. andy Warhol casts a recurring shadow for aiboth artists spent their formative artistic years in new York, and one could not ponder Warhol today not possessing a blog. as the daily diaries of an artist confronting grimness and bodily peril with acerbity, wit and controlled anger, they are without their rival at least since those of Edward ardizzone. We have now the ghost of a voice: with ai held from public view since the 3rd of april, we are left a book-length screen capture of a blog whose natural ephemerality here seems poignant, the sunflower seeds scattered through the turbine of the tate modern, and newly, Circle of animals/zodiac Heads, a work displayed both in new York, and in londons somerset House from the 12th may. the zodiac heads are bronzes instancing the vexed cultural traffic between China and the


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ai WeiWei - zodiacHead above:tiger; opposite: Dragon

West: crafted in the 18th century by a pair of European jesuits who served the qing Emperor qinlngd, they were pillaged in 1860 during the second opium War when British and French expeditionary forces destroyed the summer Palace, retaliating for the torture of two British diplomats and one journalist. the original heads formed a water clock-fountain. as a copy, or perhaps (crucially) a restored original, the bronzes reflect a preoccupation of the artist: with originality, authenticity, and their opposites. When China can manufacture goods, bearing the imprint of its manufacture, for a planet, but cannot manufacture happiness for its people, then its art must be paradoxical, he seems to say. as the art, so the artist: he was commissioned artistic consultant for the 2008 Birds nest olympic stadium, and then having renounced the olympics, spent them in an attempt to rescue stray cats left to starve in warehouses after the citys pre-olympic clean-up campaign. His blogs suppression was brought about when he published on it the names of 5,385 schoolchildrenin collapsed schools whose construction he compared to tofu-dregs killed in the 12th may 2008 earthquake in schuan province. He indicts, systematically, the government for failings from its handling of sars in 2003, to the milk scandal of 2008 with its estimated 300,000 victims. His tate installation is of a piece, or 100 million pieces: husks of porcelain, crafted and painted by hand, evoking individuals transformed into a mass to be trod (in his case literally) underfoot. across town, the lisson Gallery shows sculpture tracing familiar ground: Coloured Vases (31 Hn Dynasty vases, and industrial paint), and surveillance Camera (hewn from old marble). a qing, the modernist poet and ai Weiweis father, as it happens in 1958 was sent by the state for sixteen years to a labour camp in Xinjiang. the son is becoming a simulacrum for criticism of the government: protestors unknown briefly projected ais image last month on to the police headquarters and Hong Kong barracks of the Peoples liberation army, and Whos afraid of ai Weiwei has splashed out in graffiti across Hong Kong since his arrest. the art behind the man sometimes hovers in one mode, but its notes of elegiac fondness for an ancient culture and curious cocktail amalgam of traditionalism, liberalism and revolution make it the art for the hour, and not just in the worlds largest nation. Where is ai Weiwei? Circumspice.

ai WeiWei - zodiacHead Rabbit, below: monkey

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