In an effort to broaden the base of contemporary art the art world has taken note of African, Asian, and Australian artists, and so it seems only right for us to consider one of the foremost of the artists now duly considered by critics, dealers, and auction houses–the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In the past few months a Korean rapper named PSY has reached 1.3 billion readers with a song entitled Gangnam Style. While this is astounding in and of itself, it has also been taken up by a noted Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and used by him to protest his treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. He is photographed dancing to the song and prancing like a horse with his hands handcuffed together while he smiles and dances. Ai was given a spectacular retrospective at the Hirshhorn museum, and he was unable to be at the opening because his passport was impounded by the Chinese government and jailed without being charged for 3 months. Weiwei has been persecuted in periods of house arrest. He has also endured a beating which caused brain damage, revocation of his design firm’s license, demolition of his studio, shutting down of his blog, and continuous surveillance. Yet it seems that Weiwei is completely fearless when he continues to protest the workings of the Chinese government. His most recent protest is adapting the Gangnam Style song to his own persecution. (Pull up the you tube Ai Weiwei Gangnam Style.)

Ai is currently living in Beijing with his wife Lu Qing, dozens of assistants, and countless numbers of cats. His mistress and his son live nearby. Born in 1957 he grew up in a setting of forced misery, due to his father’s troubles with the Cultural Revolution. Ai remembers his poet father cleaning toilets in Northern China where the family was exiled until 1976. Ai was a student at the Beijing Film Academy and joined a fledgling avant garde movement. He then came to New York and took classes at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. Although he lived in a state of virtual poverty, he managed to gamble in Atlantic City and recorded the scene in black and white photographs which were shown at the Hirshhorn. He also photographed the police removal of homeless encampments in Tompkins Square. However, there were no buyers for his pictures and he returned to China. When he returned to China he was the artistic consultant on the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Olympics.

Currently Ai’s work reflects his politics. And so there is art which refers to world issues and events. There is one installation with photographs of Ai dropping a Han dynasty urn which smashes on the floor and “captures the moment when tradition is transformed and challenged by new values.” The photographs of the smashing process face a group of Ai’s own colored vases in the installation. OK if that is what the world wants to see, so be it. But if in fact, the urn is really 1000 years old it perhaps has a greater validity than Ai’s destruction of it. There is Ai’s public campaign of remembering, counter to governmental silence, the over 5000 children who perished in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 when their school buildings collapsed. The ceiling is hung with children’s backpacks in a snake shape and the names of the children cover a wall and are intoned by recorded voices. Grotesquely twisted steel rebar from the crushed schools is hammered straight and laid on the floor. There is another work still in process consisting of a pile of more than 3000 fired, painted and refired porcelain crabs. This labor-intensive work is created by innumerable assistants and bears witness to the destruction of Ai’s studio by the Chinese government. Ai held a party in Shanghai and served river crabs to the guests. There is a tenuous relationship found in the name of the work; “He xie” translates to river crab and sounds like the Mandarin word “Harmonization” which is a Communist euphemism for censorship. Another work is a giant cubicular chandelier which is taking a potshot at Communist art and design. Ai’s art is available in many varied venues but his installations have all been documented in photographs. Throughout his recent works there is a continuous strain of protest of the present Chinese government.

Physically Ai is an angelic plump sweet faced man but he is also the most courageous man on the scene. In truth Ai is testing how much the Chinese government will stand for. His Gangnam style video was viewed by tens of thousands of viewers in the short time before it was blocked from Chinese video sights. Most assuredly Ai is a great communicator, artist, and activist. This is evident when Ai as a Chinese dissident artist gets such an astounding number of hits on the internets with a pop song. Ai has been weakened by incarceration but he remains a figurehead for one of the world’s most vital cultural movements. There is no question that Ai is continually testing what is permissible in China. He is not a freelance clown or court jester. He embraces the serious destiny of either a historical hero if he succeeds in bringing down the walls of Communist China or a historical martyr if he does not. Ai has said that life is never guaranteed to be safe. But it is important for us to understand that the verdict on his art is incidental to the outcome of his life. Nevertheless collectors and critics should honor the work he produces; it is priceless.



  • Bob Chrisman says:

    I watched the Gangam-style parody and, while I didn’t understand any of the Chinese lyrics (if there were any), I did understand that he was making fun of the Chinese government. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people in the video also got punished in some way. When the video finished, I thought, Now shutting down that video was a stupid thing to do because it wasn’t that offensive. The Chinese government would have done less harm to itself by allowing the video to remain available.

    Other Chinese artists like the Gao Brothers produce art pieces that criticize the Chinese government. They have suffered the same harrassment.

    In reality, if the Chinese government wanted to shut these dissidents down, it could and would. They would disappear or turn up dead. No one important in China would care. It’s a game with the Chinese government on one side and dissidents on the other.

    In many ways the governments of China and the U.S. deal with dissidents in the same way. We in the U.S. live under the assumption that we are “free” when we gave that up most of those freedoms during the “fear years” of the Bush II administration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Adams-Needle-front-cover web 4-4-15.jpg
Facebook Page
"Like" My Author Page
On Facebook

Facebook like


Fill out the form below to sign-up to our blog newsletter and we'll drop you a line when new articles come up.

Our strict privacy policy keeps your email address 100% safe & secure.