Ai Weiwei, controversial sculptor, brings artwork to Wilson School
Created by renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the piece, called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” has been loaned to the University until next August thanks to an anonymous gift by the family of an alumnus. The sculptures are at the University in the midst of a world tour and have been in Sao Paulo, New York, London and Taipei over the past two years.
Ai’s work is often heavily critical of domestic politics in China. “In China it’s an age-old tradition that one resorts to art to express speech that they might not be able to say otherwise,” said art history professor Jerome Silbergeld, who focuses on Chinese art.
Ai has gained notoriety as a result of his controversial pieces.
“He’s undeniably very courageous,” Silbergeld said. “He’s willing to put his well-being on the line when it comes to pushing the boundaries.”
Recently, pushing the boundaries has gotten Ai into substantial trouble. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai pushed for an investigation into shoddy construction practices. Some suggested that a lack of care in construction magnified the death toll of the quake, especially among schoolchildren.
While attempting to speak with an investigator in August 2009, Ai was beaten by police and required emergency brain surgery to stop internal bleeding.
“He has gone too far several times over,” Silbergeld said. “He’s managed to survive going too far maybe in a way that someone else may not have been able to.”
Despite the adversity Ai faced and the fear of not knowing how the government will react to his next project, Ai has remained positive and has continued his work.
Stephanie Tung GS, a third-year graduate student in the art department who worked with Ai at the Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing from 2008 to 2009, described him as an imposing yet warm figure.
“He’s very jolly,” Tung said. “He always has this sparkle in his eye.”
Ai’s struggle with the Chinese government continued in 2010 when Ai opened a new studio in Shanghai, only to see it demolished just months later by the government in January 2011. Ai has also been arrested several times over the past few years, released most recently in June 2011 following three months of house arrest under accusations of tax evasion.
“It isn’t just about art; it’s about capitalism,” Wilson School professor Stanley Katz said, explaining the tension that has emerged in China as the government liberalized the economy without allowing more personal liberties. “There’s been a great tradition in Western art of people pursuing political purposes, and this is something that’s reemerged in China.”
At the height of the Arab Spring movement last year, some speculated that a similar “Jasmine Revolution” might emerge in China. The Chinese government then took additional steps to crack down on public dissent. In response, Ai used new media to communicate his views, including his Twitter feed, which has nearly 168,000 followers.
“What’s interesting about it is that he’s promoting his ideas through Twitter, blogs, etc. He’s filming everyday scenes and encouraging everyday ordinary Chinese people to do these things,” Tung said. “Empowering the everyday person to take pictures with cell phones is what threatens the government the most.”
Tung said that as the government has turned a sharper eye on Ai he has been able to avoid the most serious consequences the Chinese government could impose in most cases.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Tung said. She explained that Ai gained an almost instinctive knowledge of this balance, since his father was relocated by the government as a political punishment when Ai was very young.
His father, Ai Qing, is regarded as one of the finest modern Chinese poets. He was forcibly sent to a farm in rural northeast China by the communist government in 1958 after being accused of supporting rightist causes. According to Silbergeld, many in China suggest that Ai’s father’s popularity among the Chinese people has served to protect his son from possibly even harsher treatment.
“He has a family reputation that the government itself is reluctant to take head-on,” Silbergeld said. “Things in China are on edge lately; no one really wants to take any risks.”
The extent to which his father’s and, to a growing extent his own, reputation can protect him does have its limits. While he enjoys almost universal renown among the Chinese intellectual class and Westerners who follow art or Chinese politics, most of China’s 1.3 billion citizens have probably never heard of Ai, according to Silbergeld. He said the same could probably be said of most people passing by the sculptures in Scudder Plaza.
“For many, this is probably their first exposure to him,” Silbergeld said.
Even for those who are familiar with the artist-activist, Tung explained that there are few in America that can fully understand such a dynamic figure.
“It’s easy to hold him up as a paragon of free speech and democracy,” Tung said. “But we should caution ourselves as Americans from simply projecting ourselves on this figure.”
A new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” will be screened followed by a discussion with director Alison Klayman on Oct. 1, and “A Princeton Day with Ai Weiwei” is scheduled to take place on Oct. 10. Ai Weiwei himself has been invited to attend the event on Oct. 10, although burdensome travel restrictions make it unlikely he will be able to attend.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.