A Way to Truth

(Talk given at Basel 43 Festival, Switzerland in honour of Ai Weiwei)

In both his life and his art Ai Weiwei demonstrates that when authority is deceitful then it falls to the artist to provide an opening to the truth.  This can be seen in some of his most memorable artwork from the early Coat and Condom conceptual piece developed when he lived in New York City, the photographs of giving the finger to symbols of power from the White House to Tiananmen Square, the classical urn co-opted with the Coca-Cola logo, and on to his large installation Remembering, of knapsacks on the outside wall of the Haus der Kunst gallery to remind the world of the children who died needlessly in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of the substandard construction of school buildings. 

If a venerable Han dynasty vase can be painted over, or smashed, then so can the accretions of a modern state be obliterated. Everything passes. Either through accident or deliberately, even the most precious objects break and the remains swept away as refuse. The challenge for an authoritarian regime of such works is not just that they pose the question of who is the arbiter of society’s values, its truths and falsities, but that they favour the artist’s judgement over that of the state.

Nothing demonstrates the melding of the political, social, and artistic as well as the list of over five thousand names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake posted on the wall of Ai Wei Wei’s studio, and nothing engages as powerfully as the pathos of the quotation used on the wall of the Haus der Kunst, by a mother whose daughter died in the rubble of a tofu constructed school, “She lived happily in this world for seven years.” Plane as the statement is to construe, what is left unsaid is the truth of why the child died and why so many deaths took place.

        Ai’s work on a large scale, whether on the bird nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics or curating the Ordos 100 residential development project in Inner Mongolia, is political. So are the plot free, full-length films he made of Beijing to show, in his words, “the powerlessness of the people, and the blind nature of redevelopment.” In these films the camera records in almost geometrical precision the gridlock and the drabness of a city losing its soul through poor planning and a lack of care.

        Maybe the work that best epitomises Ai Weiwei’s optimism, humour, audacity, and complexity, while bringing together his interest in scale, material and form, is the floor covering of porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern. Each of the 100 million seeds is hand painted and so is unique, and yet they are all sunflower seeds, indistinguishable at first glance. This difference in sameness can be variously read as a statement of individuality versus multiplicity, a live and let live attitude, an expression of hope in seeds that germinate versus a recognition of inertia in inanimate porcelain, and as beauty that disguises falsehood, for in the final analysis these are not seeds at all.

         By encompassing social activism, conceptual and traditional art forms, as well as architecture, film, blogs, and twitter Ai Weiwei has made of his person, as well as his art, a measure of creative freedom and a stimulus for understanding the artist’s role in the modern world, and not just in a China developing towards economic dominance riven by corruption and abuse of power, as are many modern states. The issues he raises touch on our humanity and raise questions that require addressing, regardless of where we live. They maybe the problems of a resurgent China, but they are also those of a globalised world.  As such, Ai Weiwei’s challenges are our challenges, and a defence of Ai Weiwei is a necessary statement of the kind of world we want to live in.  

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