Without Ai Weiwei, panelists debate artist’s legacy
Ai could not leave China for his scheduled visit to Princeton yesterday due to the Chinese government’s persistent hold on his passport. As a result, the planned lecture with Ai and Wilson School professor Barton Gellman was postponed until next spring.
At the panel discussion, experts on Ai’s work discussed the renowned artist and activist.
Stephanie Tung GS, a third-year graduate student in the art and archaeology department who has worked closely with Ai in archiving his thousands of photographs over the years, said Ai specifically stays away from producing high-quality, professional films.
“He does not spend extensive time editing the film but instead values shaky, blurry, amateur images,” Tung said. Ai releases his films quickly and exclusively to Twitter rather than to film festivals so that he can address current issues while they are still relevant, Tung explained.
“By using amateur film equipment and posting these documentaries online, Ai explicitly encourages ordinary people to pick up their cameras and document their lives,” Tung said.
Tung also explained that Ai’s artwork allows for a “democracy of interpretation.”
“The political message often highlights and calls for an end to present suffering, but without any sort of pointing to a kind of definite future direction,” Tung said.
While Ai has always produced a profuse amount of images, his troubles with the Chinese authorities intensified in 2008 as he began to publicize writings on his blog and Twitter.
Kelly Baum, curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and moderator of the panel discussion, calls Ai a “savvy manipulator of media.”
“As the situation becomes more precarious and dangerous, his actions and writing become more provocative, maybe more explicit,” Baum said. “You’d almost expect him to do the opposite, to retreat, but he doesn’t seem to be shying away.”
Tung also explained why Ai is more cautious with words. “Text is fixed — my parents always say, ‘Don’t publish anything in China, because once it’s out there, you can’t take it back,’ ” Tung said.
Images offer more flexibility in meaning, and with so many ways of interpreting photos, Ai can avoid Chinese censorship more easily, according to Tung.
Aaron Levy, executive director of the Slought Foundation, which focuses on cultural experimentation and political advocacy, emphasized that entire institutions, not just individuals like Ai, need to be responsive to social and political issues.
“As much as I admire and have great respect for Ai’s work, I think we need to figure out a way to instantiate on the level of institutions,” Levy said. “Institutions have to perform this work, not just heroic individuals.”
In the question-and-answer session after the discussion, the panel was asked what kind of public figure in the past or present is comparable to Ai.
Thomas Keenan, director of the Human Rights Project and associate professor of comparative literature at Bard College, said that Ai cannot be categorized. He called Ai a “martyr.”
“The fact of his martyrdom, his imprisonment, his suffering, is now integrated into the everyday meaning of the name,” Keenan said. “Especially if he keeps doing what he’s doing, that attachment of a certain kind of suffering to his name will be indelible.”
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