All over the world, Ai Weiwei is known as the artist of resistance. Lauded as being “one of China’s most prominent and provocative artists” by newspapers such as The New York Times, the continued production of said provocative work under the scrutiny of the oppressive Chinese government serves as a beacon of the struggling desire for freedom of expression.
Yet, because the act of producing art despite the presence of an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ that is always watching is so fascinating, Ai has become a symbol of resistance in himself, his art not being appreciated as for its complexity as it ought to be.
The temptation to merely see Ai Weiwei’s struggle as a testament of the censorship imposed by the Chinese government, while convenient, is an oversimplification of how deeply nuanced and multifaceted he is as an artist.
Amidst his enormous body of work, the prominent pieces tend to be the most subversive. Between the selfies he posts on Twitter, particularly the one taken during his arrest in 2009, and the mini-series of photographs of him flicking off famous landmarks like the White House, the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square, his other works are relatively less popular.
Though not as literal and risqué, the rest of his art, when understood in context, illuminates the troubled relationship between China’s culture and economic growth.
In much of his art, Ai uses Han dynasty vases to represent the cultural past that forms the often-forgotten foundation of contemporary art or capitalism and economic growth. He dip-dyes the urns in works such as ‘Coloured Vases’ and paints the infamous logo that has become an icon of capitalism in ‘Coca-Cola Vase’.
In his triptych which depicts him dropping an urn and letting it smash to the ground (literally titled ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’), he illuminates both how easily a culture can come to ruin, while suggesting that the destruction of the old is intrinsic to producing new art.
Arguably one of Ai’s most powerful exhibits is his latest showcase, entitled ‘According to What’, personally resonant not just with the artist but with the entire Chinese population. In it, Ai Weiwei responds to the thousands who had lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
This exhibit is especially interested in remembering the lives of the children who had died in the earthquake while at school. Many blamed corrupt government contractors and regulatory agencies for the shoddy construction; Ai’s art conveys both the bitterness toward the government and the overwhelming grief that were shared by the entire nation.
In ‘Straight’, Ai and his assistants collected 38 tons of rebar from the sites of schools devastated by the earthquake. Though badly damaged and mangled, he and his team hammered each rebar straight again and arranged them in undulating waves.
But perhaps the most compelling yet understated work of art is the one entitled ‘Remembrance’. Purely an audio installation piece, ‘Remembrance’ hauntingly lists the names of the thousands of young students who had died with a running time of three hours and forty-one minutes.
In spite of the Chinese government trying to conceal the numbers of the death toll, ‘Remembrance’ is an on-going project that has since been expanded. It now has an immense running time of seven hours and twenty-two minutes and can be found on YouTube.
However, these works of art in remembrance of the lives lost do not, as Western critics claim, “make mourning subversive”, nor is its anger anti-China in its sentiment.
It is the anger that was felt on 4 June 1989 after the Chinese military massacred hundreds of students protesting the need for democratic reform. It is the anger that can only be born out of the greatest love for one’s country. It is an anger of a country both grateful for its rapid progress and fearful of the costs of success.