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Ai Weiwei is the cultural hero that China needs

Jeremy Clarke |  15 December 2015

Andy Warhol — Ai Weiwei Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, 11 December 2015 To 24 April 2016. Website

The NGV has paired two major stars in order to explore 'the significant influence of these two exemplary artists on modern art and contemporary life'. Although the juxtaposition of seminal works by pop art's high prince with the creations of a scruffy Chinese provocateur can seem like 'a forced marriage', there are more than enough connections to show the genius of the idea.

Ai Weiwei overlooks his work Blossom (2015), which consists of thousands of flowers made from fine porcelain and grew out of his With Flowers project. It is here juxtaposed with Andy Warhol's work Flowers (1970). Photo by Jeremy ClarkeFor instance, recognisable sites like Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace have been famously photographed by both artists; each reflects upon the role of heroes and in so doing subverts the paradigm through their depictions (there are two different Maos on show); and they both embrace the capacity of found objects to cast societal norms in new lights.

Thus Warhol's 1969 Campbell's Soup II: Tomato-Beef Noodle O's riff on consumerism can be set against Ai's Forever Bicycles (1500 bicycles hanging from a ceiling), which nostalgically comments on the rush of economic development in a feat of mesmerising geometric wizardry.

Ai's recent stoush with Danish toymaker Lego is cheekily referenced in his new work, Letgo Room, 2015. This walk-in room features 20 prominent Australian human rights activists (including Archie Roach, Julian Burnside, Debbie Kilroy, Peter Greste and Rosie Battie) portrayed in plastic building blocks. It is quintessentially Ai: collaborative, thought-provoking and fun.

In a light-hearted way the exhibition also disarms critics by including the photograph At the Museum of Modern Art 1987, which shows a youthful, clean-shaven Ai aping Warhol's own image, in an act that is both homage and playful poke. See? says the exhibition. There's much we can tell you through this artful bringing together, if you'll but listen.

For all that Ai is a global figure incorporating insights from many Western influences (Duchamp's influence is prominent), it is important to remember that he is first a citizen of the People's Republic of China, and steeped in classical antecedents and tradition. It is impossible to understand Ai Weiwei and his work fully without reference to the history and politics of modern China, and his own place in it.

Ai Weiwei might be more Dada than Dao and a hirsute satirist of Beijing's rulers — this exhibition is a rare time he has actually seen his works on display in a foreign gallery because his passport was recently taken for more than 600 days — but he is no mere trending hashtag. Since his birth in 1957, his life history has moulded him, and given him the courage to speak up for a reformed China.

Some forget that, although his father Ai Qing was a significant Party member, this did not stop the elite poet-official being purged in the late 1950s. Ai Weiwei thus spent his first 19 years with his family in internal exile, mostly in remote Xinjiang.

While Ai's artistic lineage helps explain his knowledge of Chinese cultural tradition (e.g. through the use of porcelain to make peonies or through classical allusions), his political suffering also underlines his anger towards CCP petty functionaries whose hypocrisy and venality are literally killing the people they proclaim to serve.

This anger is revealed in 4851 (2009), which names the thousands of school children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the 2013 heavy metal video, prudishly translated in Western galleries as Dumbass. (Space prevents commentary on Ai's use of Mandarin's earthy homophonic puns!)

Paradoxically, however, Ai's political antecedents might also explain why at times the Party gives him some space, since there is many an activist who is languishing in jail or worse.

In China too, Ai cannot be simply dismissed as just an unruly self-promoter, since he also collaborated on the famous Olympic Stadium, the Bird's Nest, and his 2008 Map of China, constructed from pieces of wood recovered from old Beijing temples, still includes Taiwan as part of the contemporary polity.

Ai might appear the court jester that a simplistic West wants, but he is in fact a clever and pragmatic political operator in his own world pursuing a rights agenda in a systematic, constructive and humorous way, often through artistic production.

In this way, his use of Twitter to push boundaries is both inspired by and akin to Warhol's flamboyant use of colour to provoke new thoughts and ideas. These two artists are thus now more icons than iconoclasts, whose works are not only political and beautiful but incredibly fun as well.


Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke is a Research Fellow in Asian Studies at Boston College.

Pictured: Ai Weiwei overlooks his work Blossom (2015), which consists of thousands of flowers made from fine porcelain and grew out of his With Flowers project. It is here juxtaposed with Andy Warhol's work Flowers (1970). Photo by Jeremy Clarke



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Submitted comments

I look forward to seeing this exhibition. Ai Weiwei is a great role model and one of my contemporary 'heroes' for his focus on human rights. His bicycle sculpture is amazingly apt for the rabid introduction of capitalism in Beijing, which has seen development of ugly American style architecture and consumerism with little regard to the social affect of this development. I saw an excellent documentary on Ai Weiwei at the Melbourne Film Festival a couple of years back, which is worth seeing.

Mark Doyle 08 January 2016

Currently, every one of the approximately 25 underground bishops of the RCC is either in jail, under house arrest, under strict surveillance, or in hiding. Bishop SU Zhimin, the underground Bishop of Baoding, Hebei was arrested in 1996, escaped, and rearrested in 1997. There has been no news on this bishop for many years. Bishop SHI Enxiang, underground Bishop of Yixian, Hebei, was arrested on April 13, 2001. He is now more than 80 years old and has been detained for more than 10 years. We do not know his whereabouts or his condition. Bishop GAO Kexian, Bishop of Yantai, Shandong, was arrested in October, 1999. We did not know where he was until he died in jail in January 2005. His cause of death is unknown. Bishop YAO Liang, the auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Xiwanzi in Hebei, was arrested on March 31, 2005, released, and arrested again on July 30, 2006. He died in 2009. Bishop ZHAO ZhenDong, Bishop of Xuanhua in Hebei, was arrested in December 2004. He died shortly after he was released. He was 87 years of age. Bishop HAN Dingxiang , Bishop of Yong Nian, Hebei, was arrested in December 1999 and was held in an unknown place for his last two years. He died in 2007 in a very suspicious situation. He was cremated and buried within six hours of his death without any religious ceremony. These are only a few examples.

Father John George 17 January 2016

Forget not other countercultural heroes One of the oldest Marian shrines in China is Our Lady of Dong Lu in Hebei, approximately 100 miles from Beijing. It is the home to 40 of the 120 martyr saints canonized by Pope John Paul II in October 1, 2000. During May each year for the last approximately 100 years, there were continued pilgrimages from thousands of Catholics throughout China. However, in April and May, 1996, the Chinese government mobilized 5000 troops, supported by dozens of armored cars and helicopters, destroyed and leveled that Marian shrine, confiscated the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and arrested many priests.

Father John George 17 January 2016

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