Fair Trade Fame
To our great surprise, in the wake of a critical article which appeared in the German weekly Die Zeit, last September, Ai Weiwei has set up a procedure for validating articles which make use of reproductions of his works. Ai Weiwei’s studio is acquainted with the article which follows, and has not approved it, banning the reproduction of the works planned to illustrate it. The places where the reproductions should be have thus been blanked out.
On February 1st, a picture of Ai Weiwei went viral on the web, accompanied by words of praise from some, hailing his courage, commitment and solidarity, and shrieks and squawks from others, calling it scandal, cynicism and hijacking. Once again, Ai Weiwei is attracting the spotlight on himself by reacting to things topical, but, for some, he would seem, this time around, to have exceeded the limits of the acceptable by presenting himself in the pose of the dead Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach, the original picture having been broadcast at the end of August 2015, triggering an unprecedented upsurge of emotion. A few days before, on his Instagram account, the artist published a series of selfies with Paris Hilton, taken during the inauguration of his exhibition “Air de jeux” at the Bon Marché department store in Paris. On the island of Lesbos, on the one hand, where he just set up his studio, the artist produces his controversial photograph presented as a tribute to the tragic fate of all those refugees and, on the other, he replies to the invitation from the Parisian temple of luxury with a playful and seductive project involving paper kites; on the one hand, his praxis is akin to a form of artistic commitment, and on the other it seems to stem from a form of art wooing billionaires.
So, from now on, are there perhaps two Ai Weiweis, on the one hand the artist who produces goods recycled in the market, turning his back on the dissident, critic of the authoritarian Chinese political system, and its variant of liberal democracy, the activist railing against the negligence of politicians in the face of the great societal challenges of today? Is there a major difference, or are the two dimensions merging as one œuvre? And, last of all, what is Ai Weiwei the symptom of?
Ai Weiwei’s work is part and parcel of a claimed Duchampian legacy, but one whose beauté d’indifférence, to borrow Duchamp’s word, he intends to pervert: the numerous ready-made elements used still refer to a precise history, the best example of which is the series of steel reinforcement bars presented in different installations over the past few years. Somewhere between readymade and Minimalism, these pieces turn out to be made up of units extricated by the artist from the rubble of the earthquake in Sichuan Province in which thousands of people died—children in particular—because of non-compliance with anti-seismic building specifications, especially in schools. By speaking out against the corruption of public authorities, it is Weiwei’s intent to thus pay emphatic tribute to the victims. This artistic approach which dovetails a critical dimension with a visual proposition is a programmatic feature of Ai Weiwei’s œuvre, and we find it in many of his works. So in Coloured Vases (2006), the series of Han Dynasty vases which he covered with epoxy paint, the artist destroys the patrimonial value of objects by making them part of the contemporary art system, just like contemporary Chinese civilization offering itself to capital (Chinese and foreign) and, to this end, proceeding to create a complete clean slate of its ancient heritage sacrificed on the altar of economic growth, in favour of a superficial cultural make-up. An even more emphatic iconoclastic gesture was part of a performance put on in 1995, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, during which he destroyed vases from that dynasty by throwing them onto the ground. The destructive gesture echoed the one that is currently widespread in China, responsibility for which he levels at politicians in cahoots with the system of capitalistic Chinese catching-up and its principle of cultural alienation (certain vases in the recent series are covered with the Cola-Cola logo, for those who might not have understood the message). Similarly, his large trees formed by odd bits of wood coming from ecologically devastated regions of China are intended to be a criticism of the massacre of nature as it is being carried on today in the country. For all this, though, is the political dissident a subversive artist in the system of signs?
Study of Perspective (1995-2003) sheds some light for us on this point: in it we see Ai Weiwei’s middle finger pointing at buildings that are power symbols as if giving them the finger. Here, Ai Weiwei unambiguously sets himself up as someone protesting against institutions: perspective as a normative principle of organization bequeathed by the western history of art and architecture is aped by the artist who turns it inside out in a gesture of defiance to authority. Through it, it is the power of the person who controls representation and imagery whom he is keen to denounce: in the empire of signs, he seems to want to play at being a critical semiologist. But is there any reason to see here something other than the gesture of a rebellious teenager? In the visual chord, the subversive potential offloaded here, conveyed by a perplexing literalness, is quite poor and well removed from the radical nature of the artist’s involvements in the public arena. Likewise, his vases repainted with epoxy, his metal bars and his trees all clearly refer to a recent history of western art: Pop Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, the list of these references could easily be made longer here. It is Ai Weiwei’s intent to systematically turn these references into critical tools aimed at denouncing the various ecological crises now under way, the corruption of politicians, and, more broadly, the capitalist perversion of Chinese culture. But the political re-utilization of Minimalism, the Pop perversion of highbrow culture and the politicization of nature are all strategies that have been tested over previous decades, and Ai Weiwei only stands out by pulling out all the stops, without re-introducing any real analysis of the power games at work within the very framework of imagery, works, and representation. With his various projects, however, the artist is enjoying considerable commercial and public success, as well as a remarkable critical acclaim, to the point where Art Review put him at the top of its Power Art List in 2011 (he was 2nd in 2015). Might it thus be that the significance of his work is more connected with the might of his biography than with the relevance of relatively not very innovative visual propositions?
Ai Weiwei is invariably introduced as an “artist and dissident” or as a “dissident artist” in columns and articles devoted to him, be they art-oriented or general. He has, furthermore, a pedigree in this domain: his father was the great Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was a political prisoner between 1961 and 1978. For his part, in spring 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested and held in detention for three months, followed by a ban on leaving Chinese territory, which was lifted in July 2015. He was also wounded in the head by the secret police in 2009, and operated on during his stay in Munich, producing lots of images of his injuries, which he posted on Instagram. Using material from his biography and covering his everyday life with great verve, he provides his digital commentators with the hagiographic stuff required for his mythicization in real time. Since his arrest in 2011, he has been setting up a dialectical strategy of appearance and disappearance, which guarantees his ubiquity in the media. Had people ever heard so much talk about Ai Weiwei as they did in spring 2011, when he had vanished into the Chinese government’s prisons? At that time, be it at the Venice Biennale or on the 8 pm TV news, just one question was causing a buzz in the art and media worlds: where is Ai Weiwei? Or more accurately: “Where is Ai Weiwei”… A question being asked by the inscription on the façade of his Berlin gallery, a question in the form of an assertion because it had no question mark, and as such containing its answer in the question: Ai Weiwei is Where, he is everywhere. And today he resurfaces at any time and in any place thanks to the ubiquitousness of his Instagram account. Backed up by a biography that is at once a label of dissidence and a narrative arousing media interest, the artist is nowadays bursting into a topical area of current news which he has not created himself, in this instance the fate of refugees.
In September 2015, together with Anish Kapoor, he organized in the streets of London a “march of compassion, as if we were walking to the studio. Peaceful, quiet, creative. […] An act of solidarity”, to borrow the declaration made by the Anglo-Indian artist.1 In which we see the two stars of contemporary art, each one with a house-moving blanket over his shoulder, Mahatma Gandhi-style, sharing in the suffering of refugees in a conversation with a goal: an event which attracted media attention more to the art stars than to those foundering in the Aegean Sea. Ai Weiwei accordingly gave his solidarity approach a boost by setting up his studio on the island of Lesbos in early January. But isn’t this as much to take selfies with refugees and fuel his current news items on Instagram as to help those same refugees? In the duplicitous game of his intervention, he brings the input of his celebrity to the refugees’ cause while at the same time diverting the camera lights towards himself, inventing the interactive sharing of celebrity and the fair trade of images, where the life jacket and the foil survival blanket might be their quality label. Straight from producer to consumer, the artist takes his trophies to the heart of the image-distribution factory, the Berlinale: he covers with life jackets the propylaea (referring to Greece…) of the Berlin Konzerthaus, the venue of the Gala night of the Berlin film festival, and asks all the ‘people’ invited to veil themselves with a foil blanket. In the communion of the projection of images, he saves the Hollywood raft from sinking in the anything but egalitarian entertainment, by inviting the guests to share in the distress, and providing an area of fair consumption of images bearing the label of the standard ‘fair trade’ survival kit equipment.
Ai Weiwei also juggles with a superposition between his biography of a dissident artist who has taken refuge in Europe, and the saga of refugees from the Near East, incidentally metaphorically blurring the figure of the artist and that of the refugee. So when he presents himself in the place of the small drowned Syrian boy, Ai Weiwei is saying to us, without beating about the bush: “I am Aylan Kurdi”, at once a sacrificial figure and a media icon. By making use of current events, the activist borrows the stance of the artist who wants to place himself beyond good and evil, and all moral issues: he re-uses a classic of modern art history, where the artist depicts himself in the middle of a battle field, turning the depravity of reality into a metaphor of his struggles, triggering, in passing, the inevitable scandal which splashes back over him as celebrity potential. Behind the use which Ai Weiwei makes of current and topical events, or more precisely of the event in all its violence, and its transformation into a simple image tossed into the flood of other images for consumption, we can make out the guardian figure of Andy Warhol. So we’re not surprised to find in the archives of his New York period a photo of him posing in front of a portrait of the father of Pop Art, whose attitude he is imitating (At the Museum of Modern Art, black and white photograph, 1987). In this context, the sudden appearance of Paris Hilton, that adulterated icon of the social networks, might find its relevance in the overall levelling worthy of the Pop Art which the artist refers to and which lumps glamour starlets and everyday tragedy together. For the silkscreen prints of Pop Art, Ai Weiwei substitutes his series of Instagram images, replacing the Pop icons with their 2.0 offshoots, no longer the actress Marilyn Monroe but the celebrity entrepreneur Paris Hilton, no longer the air crash or the electric chair, but the drowned refugee. And with Instagram, the fifteen minutes of fame which everyone can claim are watered down in the democracy of the social networks, and become ongoing self-celebration. Here, then, Ai Weiwei creates the Pop 2.0 conditions of his own ongoing self-celebration, combining the communicational activism of liberal democracy with the damaged mystique of digital glamour.
From this angle of generalized levelling, the artist’s favourable reply to the Bon Marché invitation to produce a show should not, in the end of the day, come as much of a surprise. However, the department store’s note of intent may cause smiles among those interested in the plays of semantics: “During the Mois du Blanc (meaning the “White Linen Month”), le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is giving carte blanche to Ai Weiwei”. A redundancy, here, with regard to the blanc, the whiteness which prompts one to wonder who is whitening who here: is it the inviting power which is giving carte blanche to the artist or this latter who is offering his whitewashing to the communication strategy of the world’s biggest international luxury group, the Bon Marché store being part of the LVMH group? When, in parallel, Ai Weiwei noisily closes two exhibitions in public institutions in Denmark, on the pretext that that country has just voted in certain iniquitous laws against refugees, one wonders about the selective nature of his involvements and denunciations. If he becomes unhesitatingly indignant about the endangerment of our democracies by their very institutions, can he pay allegiance to big capital without challenging its social role within democracy? At the same time Merci patron! [Thanks, Boss!], a documentary by François Ruffin, an independent filmmaker, is released, which, it just so happens, rails against the corollary social cost of the constitution of the LVMH luxury empire. Another working hypothesis about the issue of commitment and activism which makes it possible to relativize the dissident artist’s activities.
In a mercantile context which more than ever assigns artworks to the rank of ultimate luxury product for collectors greedy for knick-knacks guaranteeing their membership of an international élite, Ai Weiwei’s sudden arrival in the field of current events is something of a godsend for an art milieu that is having trouble finding a footing in reality, and is in need of a moral backing.
Does Art Review not justify Ai Weiwei’s classification in the leading pack of its Power Art List for this very reason: “An important artist and social activist, because he re-connects art with social challenges and cultural values”? The figure of the Chinese dissident presents the features of an engaged art which acts as an antidote to an art market which only seems to tautologically promote art products for their face value and not for any hypothetical content. Otherwise put, Ai Weiwei’s works produce a clear conscience in a market, in institutions and among the individualistic public of liberal democracy. The almost Christ-like figure of the artist revealing his stigmata, imprisoned for freedom of expression and information, shares his fame with refugees and enhances the militant dimension of his works with a sacrificial depth. In so doing, he reinforces the increasing blurredness between his life and his work, of which Instagram is the best witness and possibly his most interesting work. The dissident label which imbues his pieces offers the western viewer a production which seems to link up with the modern conception of the artist who has broken a ban, rejecting academic canons and causing a scandal. But behind an ambiguous activism in the context of which the artist poses as a watchman of democracy, Ai Weiwei sets up the artist as the auto-entrepreneur of his own celebrity, subject to the laws of the market and selling off his commitments in the performance of a solidarity-based reality show.
1 The Guardian, 17 September 2015.