AI WEI WEI: HIS LIFE AND ART

AI WEI WEI

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Ai Weiwei is an internationally known sculptor, filmmaker, architect and performance artist. The son of one China’s greatest modern artists and poets, Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei is regarded as a conceptualist who specializes in works that stir up controversy and confronts viewers and authorities. He has disassembled antique furniture to make them unusable and had himself photographed destroying a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty vase. On the fifth anniversary of Tiananmen Square he photographed a young woman standing in front of the Mao portrait on the square, provocatively slipping up her skirt. That young woman was his wife, the artist Lu Qing.

Ai was leader in the revolutionary Stars Group of the late 1970s and the idea man behind the iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. He helped design the stadium for the 2008 Olympics, then renounced his role after concluding that Chinese leaders had politicized the games. His blog is visited by 10,000 people a day and his architectural firm, Fake Design, is working on 50 projects. Over $4 million was spent on a performance piece in which 1,001 Chinese citizens were placed in the middle of Kassel, Germany, all wearing clothes deigned by Ai.

Ai Wei Wei was described by The New Yorker as a “fitfully, brilliant conceptualist in many mediums." He is known for creating works of art that refashion old objects and break down conventions. Many of his piece have power and venom and confront the Chinese government. Among these is a work shown at the Shanghai Biennial called “Fuck Off.” A favorite among art collectors who often pay sizeable sums for his works at auction, he has a highest international profile as an artist, dissident and critic of the Chinese government.

“Ai Weiwei is perhaps China’s most famous living artist and its most vociferous domestic critic, titles of a sort this committed iconoclast disdains,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times.---Artistically, he can do almost anything he wishes, like personally shipping16 40-foot containers, including 9,000 custom-made children’s backpacks, from Beijing for his recent exhibition in Munich.” In 2011 Ai was ranked No. 13 in Art Review magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful figures in art. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning, “Ai has two historic achievements: he is the most well-known and internationally influential Chinese artist and he is the most well-known protester and opposition force in mainland politics. In these dark days, he has become a mythical figure, riding forth, naked on his trusted grass mud horse...Ai's blog was visited 3.5 million times before it was closed. It was an important sign civil society was growing in the mainland. Ai kept up his dialogue with internet users on Twitter: @aiww had 70,000 followers. Ai enlightened their civil conscience and revealed to them a dark side of one-party rule. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

Book: Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants (2006-2009) , edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy (MIT Press, 2009).

Film: Alison Klayman has followed Ai Wei Wei with a camera for several years across several continents. Her inside account of Ai’s life tonight was featured on the PBS series “Frontline. The piece, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei,” is adapted from her upcoming documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”

Ai Weiwei’s Father

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“Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was both an artist and one of China’s most revered contemporary poets, who as a young man studied Baudelaire and Mayakovski in Paris. When he returned to Shanghai in 1932, the ruling Kuomintang party jailed and tortured him, calling him a leftist. It was right: in 1941, Ai Qing joined the Communist Party.”[Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

Ai Qing was born with the name Jiang Zhenghan. After his he was jailed and tortured by the Nationalist Party (KMT) in the 1930s for his left-wing literary views, he continued to write but found so execrable the fact that he and the leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) had the same surname that he created in protest an alternative pronounced "Ai."

Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement in the late 1950s. When Ai Weiwei he was two, his father was banished to the remote western region of Xinjiang. “But 17 years later, in the infancy of Mao’s new People’s Republic, Ai Qing ran afoul of the Communist Party for subtly criticizing its suppression of free speech. The party exiled him, first to Manchuria, then to remotest northwest China; Siberia, essentially. There he and his family lived in a hut dug into the ground. His job for the next 16 years was to clean out the village’s public toilets.” [Wines Op. Cit]

“He was 60 years old. He had never done physical work in his life and he had to start doing it, his son said. Every night, he comes home very, very dirty. But he says, “For 60 years, I don’t know who cleans my toilets. So now I do something for them.” That’s something I learned from him. He became very powerful in terms of his thinking. He made the toilet so clean, he would see it as a work of art.” [Wines Op. Cit]

“The family returned to Beijing in 1976, with the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1985, the elder Ai, now rehabilitated, would receive a literary award from President François Mitterrand of France. His son, on the other hand, could hardly wait to flee China.” [Wines Op. Cit]

In the mid 2000s, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao quoted a famous Chinese poem by Ai Qing: “If you ask me what happiness means, I tell you to ask a meadow in bloom, or a river that’s no longer frozen.”

Ai Weiwei’s Life

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Ai was born in Beijing in 1957. He has had a turbulent relationship with authorities in China ever since the age of 10, when his family was exiled to Xinjiang labor camp, after his father, once Mao’s favorite poet, was labeled “an enemy of the people” and banished, along with his family, to forced to do menial labor and clean latrines for his political views, first at farms in Heilongjiang Province and later in camps in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Ai Weiwei grew up in the camps. He had to help his father clean public toilets every day for five years. He has claimed he did not brush his teeth before he turned 17. In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy.

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Ai remembers that time and its hardships. He also remembers his father’s unshattered utopian ideals. His own political coming of age coincided with the family’s return to Beijing in 1976, at a period of relative liberalism, putting him in touch with a nascent democracy movement.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, April 5, 2011]

Ai graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, but he learned and developed his artistic talents in the United States. He left for the United States in 1981 and remained there for more than a decade in the eighties and early nineties and still has an apartment here. In New York Ai became familiar with contemporary art, resulting in an expansion of his artistic activities to include sculpture and photography. Ai said, he was in the city’s art scene, not of it. He held temporary jobs and moved 10 times, throwing out his canvases each time for lack of storage room.” Cotter wrote he had no American career to speak of---New York wasn’t looking at contemporary Chinese art in the 1980s---but he circulated widely in the downtown art world and learned a lot. [Sources: Ibid, Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

“When his father fell ill in 1993, he agonized over returning to his homeland, which harbored such painful memories. But after 1989, and the silencing of protesters at Tiananmen Square, he had decided that the world became different. And so he returned to China in 1993, reckoning that one day he might face something like his father’s fate.” [Ibid]

“In Beijing he helped spearhead new, radical, often conceptually based underground movements,” Cotter wrote. “And with his big-picture view of international art and his fluent English, he was a primary spokesman for new Chinese art and a link between Chinese artists and a developing audience of Western collectors, curators and critics.”

The Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma wrote in an article published by Project Syndicate: “Ai’s Shanghai workshop used to be a salon for Chinese artists, including the film directors Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen. But Ai never allowed himself to be hired as an official regime hack. Instead, he remained an outspoken, independent man, ready to speak and take action whenever art and ideals confronted repression and cruelty.

Ai Weiwei’s Naked Photographs in New York

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In 1981, he quit and flew to New York, in the United States. He enrolled in language courses in Philadelphia and California but didn't like the schools and would not graduate. Nonetheless, in 1983, Ai won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York. After a year, he failed an art-history test because, it was said, he had skipped too many classes. After the school had stopped his scholarship, Ai became an illegal alien. He lived in the East Village for 10 years, along with poets and musicians, punks, Buddhists and Hindus, junkies and thieves, at the mouth of a smoking volcano, as he called it. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” In October 1988, I arrived in New York for the first time. Poet and painter Yan Li, a member of the Beijing artist group The Stars, took me to meet Ai. He had wild hair, a Chinese army coat and was already gaining weight. Whenever he met someone new, a shy smile creased his face. He even blushed a little. Then he would say, in the most natural voice: "Let's get naked together! This is New York."

To be photographed naked or half-naked is part of Ai's character, and a trait of his artistic career. He began to take nude pictures of himself and others in the mid-1980s, in his basement apartment and on the streets of New York's East Village. It was fun; it was a kind of catharsis, and developed into a deliberate show of scorn, a physical confrontation with state power.

I had just arrived and was completely dazzled by this chaotic city. Yes, I was a rebel at heart, but I wasn't ready for a nude photo. He saw that I was bewildered, smiled his mischievous smile and said again: "How about a picture? Let's take our clothes off together!" After hanging out with him on the streets for a while, I was quickly persuaded to do it. But then I sobered up, so to speak, and reneged. If I had had the misfortune of staying at his place for a few days, like many of my friends, I wouldn't have been able to escape his camera.

When Ai felt bored, he took photos of himself in the mirror. That was the beginning of his craving for "the naked". But what he really enjoyed was taking the pictures in the street, where it was forbidden. He would look around for police and if they weren't watching, he pulled down his trousers, took a shot of himself, got dressed again and disappeared. In Ai's basement I saw dozens of photos of naked artists and friends, many of them pictured with Ai. The best one was from 1986: Ai and Yan in the square in front of the World Trade Centre, on what today is known as Ground Zero. Two skinny naked young men laughing merrily into the camera.

In May 2009, Ai told mainland magazine Southern Weekend: "Yan Li wanted to take a photo of us there; that was too boring for me. I said let's get naked and then take a picture. He hesitated, but he felt that his figure was better than mine, so he did it. This was great. There we were in the sun, nobody else around. That was a time without emperors."

Ai Weiwei’s Life in New York

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Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning, “Ai's apartment was also an underground shop for second-hand cameras. He always had dozens of cameras lying around, bought on the cheap from fences and thieves. He became adept at repairing them and would sell them on.” [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

After the 1989 massacre in Beijing, I stayed in the US as a kind of literature refugee. I had an invitation from Brown University. I became a resident writer there, with a monthly stipend of US$1,500. I had won the lottery, so to speak, and Ai got wind of this. Whenever I was in Manhattan, he would want me to come to his famous basement. Once, as soon as I was inside, he led me to a bed covered with cameras and introduced me to all kinds of features on every one of them. He was determined to share my fortune and I was overwhelmed by his mercurial effort, so I pulled out more than US$400 for one of his cameras. As soon as Ai pocketed the money, he was so happy he took me to Chinatown for dinner. The camera didn't have extra lenses, and I never used it. It got lost somewhere in those restless years.

He was boundless and carefree. Those 10 years in New York were, in his own words, "a time when I opened my eyes in the morning and didn't know what I would do the whole day". Every day, Ai would leave his 800 sq ft basement, for which he paid US$700 rent, and climb up to the surface world, with all its serious business, to create the excitement and adventure he craved. You'd always bump into him in the early 90s, with his typical north China face and his already chubby figure wrapped in an army coat. I suspected he wore nothing under that coat. Maybe he had picked up this habit in his youth, in the Gobi Desert.

By the late 80s, Ai's rebellious character had been revealed. He was always looking for trouble. In those years, there were countless demonstrations on the streets of New York and Ai took part in every one. There were the Chinese demonstrations in 1989, but Ai also participated in demonstrations against the Gulf war (1990-1991), against police brutality and in support of homosexuals, the homeless and vagabonds.

One time he was in a demonstration that left the East Village and went into Greenwich Village, where the demonstrators were not familiar with the streets. He was cornered by the police, his camera smashed and he was thrown rather far. Ai was also threatened by police with film cameras - they came very close until the lens almost touched his face. Plain-clothes policemen would walk up to him, smiling, and give him a push, or a shove. These experiences proved valuable for him in his encounters with mainland security officials. His fearlessness in his homeland comes from his experiences in New York.

"To be threatened can get you hooked," Ai told Southern Weekend. "When state power concentrates its affections on you, you feel important." Experiences in New York---made me understand the power structure; the relationship between the government, or the people in power, and the ordinary people. It is a society that propagates freedom and democracy but, actually, power is the same wherever you go. It is completely the same."

Ai Weiwei, Allen Ginsberg and Practical Jokes

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The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,”At that time, Ginsberg also lived in the East Village. He always carried a little camera, which must have been expensive, but didn't look like much. He would wander around the streets and subway stops, always taking shots. I often ran into Ginsberg in the East Village, he would always keep babbling at me while he photographed everybody; he was hooked alright. Ai and Ginsberg were very close. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

Ai was also close to African-Americans and street artists. He was always up for practical jokes. The famous Chinese director Feng Xiaogang was in New York in the early 90s doing a television series called Beijingers in New York. Feng wrote about his assistant director, Ai: "He picked up two different things which had nothing to do with each other, joined them together and had them bring forth something new."

For example, he put a basketball into a bag and threw it from a tall building, just to watch people stop in their tracks and wonder what it was. Another time he bought an LP record from the Cultural Revolution: a collection of Mao Zedong's most famous essays, including, among others, the one about the old man who moved a mountain and the one on Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who became a hero in the mainland. They were recited by a China Central Television announcer with oratorical perfection. Ai found a record player and an amplifier, and treated the whole Village to an impromptu Maoist street oration.

Ai Wei Wei, the Blackjack Player

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “A ccording to an article published on blackjackchamp.com, a Web site that reports on the casino industry Mr. Ai was well known among blackjack players in the United States when he lived in New York from 1981 to 1993, making frequent trips to Atlantic City. Playing blackjack was his main source of income for many years. According to blackjackchamp.com, Mr. Ai was a rated blackjack player, and so casinos gave him free suites, limos and dinners. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 13, 2011]

A veteran blackjack player named Vinnie told the Web site about his first meeting with Mr. Ai in Atlantic City: “I was playing and losing bad, and then this Asian guy with a beard right out of the kung fu movies, playing next to me, starts telling me when to hit, split or stay.” The Web site reported that after Ai was arrested in April 2011 some “casino insiders” were thinking of holding a series of fund-raising blackjack and poker tournaments to lobby the United States government to impose trade restrictions on China unless Mr. Ai is released.

Ai Weiwei’s Personality and Character

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Ai has been described as charismatic, larger-than-life, intense, gentle and affable.” “At 52,---Wines wrote. “Ai, a beefy, bearded man with an air of almost monastic composure, is an international figure in the art world, successful beyond what anyone might have predicted even a decade ago. He is a celebrated architect, a co-designer of Beijing’s landmark Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker with a 100-member staff.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

Nicholas Logsdail, director of the Lisson Gallery in London, which did an exhibition of his work, wrote in The Guardian: “I've met him on a number of occasions over the last couple of years. When we were preparing for the show, I found him to be highly practical and thoroughly professional. He is a serious man of few words but he has an ironic sense of humor. He's also a big guy, physically, with a barrel chest and a commanding presence. [Source: Nicholas Logsdail, The Guardian, May 8, 2011]

We had some very interesting conversations about the time he spent living in New York in considerable hardship. He was an exile, partly by choice, partly out of necessity because of his family's political problems in China. It was a gestation period, a time of growth. He was taking stock of the bigger world and putting his house in order, as an artist and an intellectual.” [Ibid]

“He may not think of himself as an intellectual, but I would certainly describe him as one. Although he can be irrational himself, he despises irrationality and tries to give a clear and logical approach to the issues that are important to him. He's committed and idealistic, and unaccepting of injustice to the point of self-denial allowing himself to get into this position is surely a form of self-denial.” [Ibid]

The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” Ai Weiwei is a big, brawny hulk of an artist who has given his weight as 280 pounds (127kg). He has a tiger's back and a bear's waist, with a bearded face that shows he's from the north. His good-natured smile hides a certain scorn. He is not loquacious but when he speaks, his words are sharp and to the point. He has a vast knowledge of political reality in the mainland. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

“When discussing Ai, you have to begin with his innate wildness... Ai doesn't like to have conversations with serious or boring people. As soon as he encounters serious talk, he becomes uncomfortable, so he has to do something absurd, any kind of practical joke, to turn a boring situation into something funny. He has always thought there are too many serious people in this world, keeping up appearances. So he has to try to make people laugh, show them the naked truth.”

Ai Weiwei Art Career

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Art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “From a Western perspective, Mr. Ai’s career fits a familiar profile. We tend to like our contemporary Chinese artists to come across as aesthetic tradition-busters. In this regard Mr. Ai has not disappointed. In the 1990s he painted Coca-Cola logos on ancient Chinese pots and broke up classical Chinese furniture.”[Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, April 5, 2011]

“But gradually such Duchampian moves have given way to large-scale, socially critical projects. For a conceptual piece called “Fairytale” at the 200 7Documenta in Kassel, Germany, he placed 1,001 antique Chinese chairs, available for use, throughout the exhibition. He built an outdoor structure from 1,001 doors salvaged from Ming and Qing houses that had been eliminated by rampant development in Chinese cities. Through the Internet he recruited 1,001 Chinese citizen-volunteers to come to Kassel to live for the duration of the show.” [Ibid]

“In short, he brought a sense of China that was at once inviting, puzzling and pathetic. The chairs were nice to sit in. It was hard to know what to make of the mini-army of temporary residents, who seemed equally uncertain of why they were there. The structure built from old doors finally just collapsed. Over all, “Fairytale” was not a winning picture of his homeland.” [Ibid]

“As an international celebrity he was still a feather in China’s cap at a time when the country was making an all-out effort to become a major cultural presence prior to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. With this in mind the Chinese government asked Mr. Ai to collaborate with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design for the Olympic stadium, known the Bird’s Nest. He did so. The result was a triumph.” [Ibid]

“Through all of this, his own work, which came to include sculpture, photography, performance and architecture, fit no definable mode. It was his personal presence as impresario, entrepreneur and social commentator that gave it unity. And increasingly it was the critical commentary that stood out, became a form of performance art, carefully choreographed in all its moves. And those moves were toward ever greater risk.” [Ibid]

“His attacks on political authority grew sharper, more persistent, more amplified. The noble Confucian model of the morally grounded intellectual speaking truth to power in a single dramatic confrontation was called on so often as to become, seemingly by intention, an unnoble and relentless insistence. And as a result, whatever immunity from reprisal he might once have enjoyed was soon gone.” [Ibid]

Ai Weiwei’s Art

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Mr Ai is famous in artistic circles for performance pieces that explored the dizzying change of contemporary China and for irreverent, avant garde works such as a photo series that shows him giving the middle finger to landmarks such as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the White House in Washington, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Nicholas Logsdail, director of the Lisson Gallery in London, which did an exhibition of his work, wrote in The Guardian: “In my opinion, Ai Weiwei is one of the major artists of the early 21st century... He's not just the most important Chinese artist of his generation but a truly international figure... His work is a very interesting blend of traditionalism and liberalism, with a revolutionary bent. He has an outspoken nature, which is what has got him into trouble, but my reading is that his primary impulse is less to overturn society than to improve it. He is unwilling to keep quiet in the face of ignorance and prejudice and he speaks out against injustice wherever he finds it.”

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “In one of his early acclaimed works, a series of three photographs called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, he dispassionately shatters a priceless ancient Chinese vase, striking a theme---destruction and recreation---that runs through much of his art. Other works employ Ming and Qin period urns, furniture and architecture, assembled into haunting new creations, or painted over, Warhol-style, with the Coca-Cola logo, or speared by wooden beams. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

Ai served as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ai now regrets participating in the"Bird's Nest" project. "The Beijing Olympics have oppressed the life of the general public with the latest technologies and a security apparatus of 700,000 guards. It was merely a stage for a political party [the Chinese Communist Party] to advertise its glory to the world," he said. "I became disenchanted [over the project] because I realized I was used by the government to spread their patriotic education. Since the Olympics, I haven't looked at [the stadium]," he said.

In Munich, Ai exhibited a work called So Sorry addressed to the government’s near-silence on schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan Earthquake. Describing by the New York Times as his---most arresting work of art to date--- it comprises 9,000 children’s backpacks, covering one exterior wall of the Haus der Kunst museum . Against a blue background, colored bags form the Chinese characters for the message, ‘she lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a quotation from a mother of one earthquake victim. [Ibid]

Ai and Art with the Naked Body

The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning, “Ai is an energetic and prolific concept artist. The word "concept" includes for him his own concept of society, of the world in general. In his 10 years as an illegal alien in New York, he spent a lot of time in museums and galleries. He always walked everywhere, so he would pass 40 to 50 blocks walking to the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum, for example. He often talked about his enthusiasm for Andy Warhol. Ai may be one of the very few people who have thoroughly digested and understood Warhol. But he goes further than the pop-art pioneer, because he uses concepts to challenge state power. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

Ai remains preoccupied with the naked body. After he returned to the mainland, in 1993, his nude performance pieces gradually acquired levels of metaphor and satire. There is a famous photograph from Tiananmen Square, taken on June 4, 1994, the fifth anniversary of the massacre. With the skills he had learned in New York, Ai and his girlfriend, Lu Qing, were able to move through rows of police and plain-clothes detectives, to the middle of the square, opposite the portrait of Mao. Lu, who became Ai's wife, positioned herself in front of a fence, with Mao's face between her and another woman. Ai's camera captured the moment she raised her skirt and revealed her underwear, with one of her feet drawn up, as in a dancing pose. The challenge to the authorities is obvious when you see the picture but there's hardly anything illegal in it. The photo was published in underground art publications throughout the rest of the 90s.

After 2000, in the age of the digital camera, Ai became more forthright when photographing his own body. His pictures became more vulgar, flouting aesthetic standards and feelings of shame. In September 2008, he took shots of his bulging belly and posted them on his blog. These images were meant to be shocking and make the observer reflect on ugliness. The burning cigarette in his navel certainly looked vulgar enough. But there was no hidden intention to be discerned behind the vulgarity. All you can see is a shameless ageing man, who has never changed the naughty ways that have always been natural to him.

The peak of Ai's nude online presence was reached with a series of photos of himself alone or in a group, each with characteristic titles. In May 2009, Ai took five pictures. One of the pictures' titles could be translated as "the grass mud horse blocking the centre", another one as "flying high, don't forget to hide the central authority".

"Hiding" and "blocking the centre of power" are puns, because "hiding" and "blocking" sound like "party" in Chinese, and "the party centre" always means the Communist Party's Central Committee. "Flying high, don't forget the party centre" and "flying high, don't forget to hide the central authority" sound exactly the same (tengfei bu wang dang zhongyang; "flying high" is a phrase often used in state propaganda to celebrate economic or political successes). The phrase "grass mud horse" is another pun, being phonetically similar to "f*** your mother". Here, it could be seen that the Central Committee is being encouraged to do just that. The use of a "grass mud horse" toy to cover your privates thus becomes an obscenity aimed at the most serious and sacred body at the centre of state power.

Ai went further. He took pictures of more and more people together, all naked except for a grass mud horse. They were artists, internet users, lawyers and activists, and included Shanghai civil rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu. Ai's creative talent and his inclination to nudity reinforced each other through the use of political metaphors.

Ai Weiwei’s One Tiger, Eight Breasts

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Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning, “On April 3, Ai was seized by security agents at Beijing airport (SEHK: 0694), as he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong. After he disappeared into incarceration, internet users, including government-paid agents (the "50-cent crew") searched frantically for nude pictures of Ai. One series of images became widely known under the online moniker "One Tiger, Eight Breasts". Many interpretations of these images have been offered. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

The classic interpretation of the group image runs like this: Ai sits in command at the centre. His manner is straightforward, but almost accidentally his hands cover the vital parts, which evokes an illusion to the Central Committee. Ai's hands rest on his left knee, indicating a resolute leftist stance.

The long-haired young woman on the left of the picture sits with her legs crossed on a backless chair. She symbolises the intellectual, since she has her own position and posture, but she has no backing and cannot be relied on. She's playing with her hair while her body is inclined towards the party centre, which means whatever intellectuals are playing at, they will always be dragged away by the government.

The woman on the right (Ye Haiyan, an activist from Wuhan, Hubei province) has a well-rounded figure and wears a jade pendant and a watch, so she's the bourgeoisie; she has a position, which can be relied on. Her hands are kept at her right side, hinting at her rightist standpoint. In the composition of the whole picture, there is an obvious distance between the party centre and the bourgeoisie. They are on polite and formal terms. The figures of the bourgeoisie and the party centre can be seen in other pictures, with different postures, meaning they have secret dealings.

The short-haired woman in the centre, sharing a seat with Ai, doesn't have her own position to sit on, so she must have been standing and smiling politely before she was pulled in and made to rest with the Central Committee. She is the media, kept in her place by the party. Finally, the girl at the back having to hide all the way behind the chairs is a migrant labourer and therefore in a classless position. It's all in the eye of the beholder, whether you see moral turpitude, a romantic situation or a tableau of political hints. This picture continues the style of Ai's other nude art projects. There is a natural and carefree attitude in the poses and expressions of the models. The pictures are not indecent - and the interpretation above does seem to be rather far-fetched, on the whole.

Story Behind Ai Weiwei’s One Tiger, Eight Breasts

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The Chinese poet Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” The group picture was taken when Ye Haiyan (her name means "sea swallow") visited Ai in his atelier last year. The other women were online fans. They had come to know about each other on Twitter. Ye was deeply impressed by Ai's documentaries from the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and also by his film on Yang Jia, who had broken into a police station and stabbed six policemen to death. Yang was sentenced to death but received a lot of public sympathy, pointing to widespread anger and frustration. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

After seeing those documentaries, Ye searched the web and learned about Ai's art - chairs with three legs, modified ancient tables and coffins - and found pictures of Ai and his (male) artist companions in the nude. She was impressed by his approach and took her daughter to a gathering for earthquake victims, organised by Ai and his friends. Later, Ye went with a friend to Ai's Beijing studio. The artist often invited visitors to take part in his performance pieces. When her friend suggested it, Ye agreed to do it.

"Apart from the photographer, there was no one else around," Ye wrote in an internet posting, on April 20. "We took our clothes off there at the atelier. It was a serious occasion for us. We felt natural, as if we were wearing clothes, but if you've never had such an experience, maybe you can't even face a human body, because you feel weak, or filthy. We were very proud when we had finished. Ai named it Open Encounter." About the picture, she wrote: "I don't think there is any allegory, it's very simple, just about the human body; but I don't reject any interpretations, you can try out how far your thoughts will take you."

Ai's nude projects may have some spiritual common ground with aspects of Zen and chivalry in ancient China. Some Zen monks liked to bare their chest and shed their clothes. Zen carries a tradition of seeking direct access to the heart and soul, stripping away anything else. "See the basic nature and attain Buddha-hood" is a known phrase. There is a certain theatrical aspect in Zen Buddhism, with abrupt language and actions. Irreverence is very important. The spontaneous and carefree attitude exhibited in Ai's performances comes close to this clownish aspect of Zen. And the chivalrous tradition, originating about 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty, stresses a few basic values, which I also see expressed in Ai's championing of basic rights.

Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei’s Films

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One Ton of Ebony
Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” Who is afraid of Ai Weiwei” Ai has many names. "Wei" is a basic character, one of the 12 earthly branches used for time-keeping; commonly, "wei" means "not yet". The family name Ai is also a simple character, a name Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, chose for himself at the beginning of his artistic career. To confuse government-paid internet agents, Ai has used the Chinese characters for "ai" and "wei" in many combinations. The most common abbreviation in roman letters is aiww, as used for his Twitter account. Who is afraid of Ai Weiwei” Well, one thing is clear: Ai himself acted as if he feared nothing and no one. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

Ai does not just like to get naked by himself or with friends, he has also helped to lay bare "China", from the Central Committee to regional administrations. His approach is different from the serious mien of the traditional dissident intellectual. He has his own brand of indignation, mixed with an easy humour, to face the violence of state power.

Ai knew prison was waiting for him, that he could even lose his life. "Who says I am not afraid? I am very much afraid, but if I stop and do nothing, it would feel even more terrible," he told me in 2009, at the opening of an exhibition of his in Munich, Germany. Ai had a bandage on his head after having had emergency surgery as a result of a beating he'd received from police in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Ai's 40-odd collaborators have a strong team spirit. In 2009, artist Yang Licai, who worked at Ai's studio, told Taiwan's China Times: "Ai Weiwei is not just one man on a quest. There is a band of fellow Don Quixotes riding along with him, and behind every one of them is a very dedicated crew. And behind all of them are untold and unseen masses of people. They have no other common goal than to lead a decent life."

Ai Weiwei’s film Disturbing the Peacea is a god example of his irreverent and aggressive filmmaking, especially when dealing with the police. The question of “respect” comes up in discussion of the film. Some audience asked whether he was disrespectful to the police and forcing the camera into people’s faces; others commented on the various ways the film camera might have intervened into the interactions captured on the screen, whether filmmaking spurred violence and confrontation at times, while repressing them at other times.

Ai Wei Wei’s Tate Gallery Instillation

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Sunflower at the Tate
The Tate Modern gallery in London hosted Ai's huge installation "Sunflower Seeds" made up 100 million hand-crafted porcelain seeds placed on the floor in the cavernous Turbine Hall. The sunflower seeds exhibition was enthusiastically received by critics, but ran into controversy when visitors were barred from walking on them because of the ceramic dust thrown up.

On the piece,Salman Rushdie wrote in New York Times, “The great Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, a former power station, is a notoriously difficult space for an artist to fill with authority. Its immensity can dwarf the imaginations of all but a select tribe of modern artists who understand the mysteries of scale. Last October the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei covered the floor with his "Sunflower Seeds": 100 million tiny porcelain objects, each handmade by a master craftsman, no two identical. The installation was a carpet of life, multitudinous, inexplicable and, in the best Surrealist sense, strange. The seeds were intended to be walked on, but further strangeness followed. It was discovered that when trampled they gave off a fine dust that could damage the lungs. These symbolic representations of life could, it appeared, be dangerous to the living. The exhibition was cordoned off and visitors had to walk carefully around the perimeter. [Source: Salman Rushdie, New York Times, April 19, 2011]

The Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma wrote in an article published by Project Syndicate: “China's people, Ai's installation seems to imply, are like the millions of seeds spread across the Tate's gargantuan entrance hall. No one cares whether they are humiliated or crushed under foot (as the seeds were allowed to be at the exhibition's opening). Unfortunately, Ai has become one of the seeds, his freedom crushed by the heel of an inhuman state. “

Ai Wei Wei’s New York Chinese Zodiac

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Sunflower at the Tate
In May 2011 an outdoor sculptural piece by Ai called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” was installed at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “To most New Yorkers the dozen large cast-bronze animal heads, corresponding to the signs Chinese zodiac, will be simply winsome, or maybe a little freaky. To anyone knowing the historical reference behind these images, they’ll be explosive. [Source:Holland Cotter, New York Times, April 5, 2011]

“They are based on a set of similar sculptures that once adorned a fountain at the 18th-century imperial Summer Palace called Yuanming Yuan near Beijing. In 1860 French and British soldiers occupying China torched the palace and carried off the zodiac heads, an act which to this day evokes popular outrage in China as an example of colonialist humiliation and of everything hateful about the West.” [Ibid]

“Getting all the heads back---only some have been returned---has become an impassioned nationalist mission. When two were offered for sale at Christie’s in 2009 as part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate, there were protest demonstrations---almost never allowed in any other context---across China.” [Ibid]

Mark Singer wrote in The New Yorker: Ai’s first public art commission in New York is a reinterpretation of a seventeenth-century water clock---a dozen bronze animal heads representing figures of the Chinese zodiac, to be situated within the Pulitzer Fountain across from the Plaza Hotel. On a return visit to New York in 2008, Ai’s friend Larry Warsh arranged a meeting with Adrian Benepe, the Parks Commissioner. The particulars emerged in February, 2009, when Warsh showed up at the studio the morning that the artist’s son, Ai Lao, was born. [Source: Mark Singer, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“For someone who has words for everything, he had no words,” Warsh recalled. “We went right away to the hospital, and he showed me the baby. That was very moving. I’m a big baby fan. Then we went back to the studio and started discussing public sculpture and what would make sense for New York City. An art historian was with us. An auction of the Yves Saint Laurent estate was taking place around the same time at Christie’s in Paris. The zodiac clock had been installed in the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing, which was looted by the French and British in 1860. Two of the animal heads eventually wound up with Saint Laurent. Since these had been stolen, there was a huge controversy. Anyway, as we sat in the studio, Weiwei had this “Aha!” moment. He would create full-size bronze derivations of all twelve of the animal heads.”

The temporary home of the animal heads, which had been cast in Chengdu, turned out to be a secured building in New Jersey on the grounds of an early-twentieth-century estate in deep horse country---an unheated stucco-and-fieldstone redoubt formerly occupied by a tennis court with a spectators---balcony, huge mullioned windows, and a couple of bowling alleys in the basement. The bronzes lay on their sides in six wooden crates, swaddled in several layers of bubble wrap. The wrapping of one was cut away to reveal a four-foot circular base and, atop a six-foot pole, a convincing and intimidating rooster, wide-eyed, with an erect cockscomb, highly detailed feathers and wattles, and a beak large enough to swallow a cat. A dozen cylindrical marble foundations lay nearby.

The plans for the official unveiling in New York City included a press conference with Mayor Bloomberg and luncheons and dinners in Ai’s honor, after which he and Warsh had mapped an itinerary that included museum visits in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and London. All that was certain at the moment, however, was that the zodiac figures would be installed in New York, with or without the artist’s presence.

Image Sources: Wiki commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2012

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