The “Art of Change” exhibit which Ai Weiwei criticised as misrepresenting Chinese art. Image credit: Southbank Centre.
Randian (燃点), a Chinese-English magazine which seeks to “promote independent cultural debate in China”, has published an article which takes to task the Western media’s representation of Ai Weiwei as the face of contemporary Chinese art, and also criticizes the artist’s recent statements about art in China.
The piece, written by Professor Paul Gladston of Nottingham University, is primarily a response to Ai’s own op-ed on the recent exhibition, Art of Change: New Directions from China (previously), in which Ai attacked the exhibit for failing to “address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues”.
In recent years Ai Weiwei has become a familiar media presence within the UK. Interminable online rants, scathing public attacks on officialdom, headline-grabbing exhibitions and artworks, a series of police beatings, life-threatening hospitalization, a BBC documentary by Alan Yentob, captivity without trial, a high-profile prosecution for “tax evasion,” a certificated whip-round among friends and associates to pay the bill and, more recently, a cinematic self-portrait of the artist as unreconstructed non-conformist have secured Ai’s place not only as a commentator of first choice on the subject of contemporary art in China but also as a spectacular personification of resistance to Chinese authoritarianism.
His constant baiting of authority and refusal to bow to intimidation has resulted in a Kafkaesque backlash the mere prospect of which would terrorize most of us into lasting and abject silence. For his defiance in the face power Ai deserves our continuing attention and respect.
Ai may have situated himself admirably behind enlightened westernized ideals of freedom and openness, but the sheer bluntness and reductive simplicity of his critical approach to authority have effectively foreclosed a more searching discussion of contemporary art within China as well as the complex, web of localized cultural, social, political and economic forces that surround its production and reception.
As part of China’s Daoist-Confucian tradition, there is a long-established understanding that art has the potential go beyond the merely formalistic to offer meaningful social commentary and spiritual enlightenment. In accordance with that tradition, artistic criticism of authority within China has tended towards the poetic and allegorical as well as the exercising of symbolic forms of withdrawal. This lack of open criticism of authority is not entirely a matter of pragmatism. It is also considered a marker of civilization.
Ai Weiwei is right in drawing our repeated attention to the debilitating injustices of totalitarian power within China. He is also right to upbraid western viewers for their inability to see past what are for them the pleasurable ambiguities of contemporary Chinese art. Less convincing, however, is Ai’s wholly reductive view of the critical possibilities of contemporary art in China. By insisting on his own stridently oppositional approach towards power as the only legitimate game in town, and because we are already highly familiar with that approach, it is he and not the Hayward who has misrepresented the contemporary Chinese artworld.