Ai Weiwei’s Progress(?)

I’m getting caught up in the chaos of Shanghai again…and I love it. One week in and I’ve finally settled back into life here, although I’ve gone through some major questioning moments in my mind, no doubt because I am to leave again, and so soon, in 6 weeks time. I’m up super early this morning…only 2 days left in my job at AIVA, a morning of meetings with Shanghai curators, the sun pouring in through my 7th floor apartment bedroom window…I love it. Did I say that already?

Whilst back in the UK, and during my first trip to London, I went to see the Serpentine Pavilion 2012 by Herzog & de Meuron and contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that I’d mentioned many times before on my blog during its planning stages. Although the initial architectural plans and drawings gave a visual sense of what the space was to look like, they were never fully textually interpreted or referenced against Chinese contexts…and this was the same at the actual site. When I went to see it with photographer Phillip Reed, who had also spent extended time in Shanghai, China, so had that necessary “Chinese” perspective, we noticed that the exterior text panel and leaflet spoke very broadly about the “archaeological approach”, the process of physically representing each of the previous pavilions and architectural fragments, but made no mention of Ai Weiwei’s influence, the China influence, the much-needed “China perspective”. (I’m trying not to mass generalise here about the “China perspective”…if I could footnote I would and say that I mean anyone who has engaged with and spent extensive time in China from the West.) Or maybe it’s just me wanting a reason? Maybe it doesn’t need the Chinese context? It made me question whether the average, non-China engaged, non-art or art-informed viewer would have this same issue. Then again, was his perspective not mentioned because of his recent detainment and release back in China? I felt China’s almost anonymous translatory presence made a big difference to my experience…however, I did have the upper hand, as did Phillip, in the respect of our prior and current “real” knowledge of China.

On first glance, Phillip referenced the reflectivity of the water against David Chipperfield’s glass structures at Royal Festival Hall, London…the sheer magnitude and purity of the surface…then stating how glass is so overused in Chinese architecture, especially in Shanghai where new structures are being built every day, covered top to bottom in the stuff…and now, after visual realisation, how there is an attempted regression from this to other materials. The Shanghai Tower, to be the second tallest building in the world at over 2,000 ft, is no exception as it is to be encased by a glass facade. Some very key points and questions were raised during our discussion that day. Was it very simply commenting on the relationship between architects and the Serpentine Gallery/Pavilion? Or was it more critically commenting on China’s relationship with architecture and architects? Was the reference to archaeology, the “digging down”, a comment on progress? That China is moving forward, and almost, in some respects, uncontrollably, which could be said for the architectural development, especially in Shanghai. Was the use of cork a comment on the (un)sustainable urban development…the fast-changing pace…of the Chinese architectural and urban fabric? And the current drive for ecological means and sustainable change in China…as if an after thought? To me, it just seemed a very discrete statement for Ai Weiwei, but maybe that was the point? Maybe it was just representing simplistic values for once? I knew that this work was planned so far in advance before his recent detainment, so it would not have bared that much influence on its conceptual criticality. By “digging down” and uncovering the foundations of previous pavilions, was Ai Weiwei making a statement about uncovering the foundations of China, uncovering truths and realities that he attempts to do with the rest of his artistic practice? Hence, could it be seen that this pavilion acts as a discrete form of subversion, as though you are sitting within the foundations of China yet not knowing what is really being said or going on? When this is an actual reality when you are in China as the media is so conflicted and falsified. A lot of time was spent simply viewing this where its beauty comes from the multifunctional participatory factor…from the random duck bathing in the shallow waters on the pavilion’s rooftop surface, to members of the public using it as a site for performance, a place to picnic, a space to converse, an underground to hide in and escape from the London hubbub…which is what Phillip and I did that morning with very English sandwiches and cups of tea as we battled in our minds, and verbally, trying to interpret, or further interpret, its architectural presence. I wondered if the other people there shared our thoughts? I love how green the grass and vegetation looks in these photos…something that is not the same inner cities in China. That is one thing I miss it already.

The day before I left the UK last week, I had my first (informal) work meeting with Chinese Art Centre, where I will become Research Curator in late October 2012. This news is still sinking in…the change is going to be very emotional yet incredibly exciting and I’m already thinking, planning, conceptualising in my head my future work with them. As soon as a creative seeds gets planted with me they can’t help but grow, and so immediately too. After I spent the morning with my new team, I went to Cornerhouse, a great cultural hub in Manchester, to go and see the long-awaited film ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’ by journalist and documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman. I was so glad that I was back in the UK to catch this, again another good timing instance much like the London 2012 Olympics…if I’d come earlier in June as intended I wouldn’t have seen it…and it certainly won’t make it to Chinese (illegal-pirated-DVD shop) waters. I’d heard a lot about the development of this film as I’d been in touch with Alison a few times via e-mail as she’d asked for my documentation of Ai Weiwei’s protest party when his Shanghai studio was torn down by the government at the end of 2010. I will never ever forget that moment, that experience. I like going to see films on my own…it becomes my time, my world for a few hours…but for once, I wished I’d had company as so many people in the film are now good friends or professional colleagues, and a pinch, literally a snippet of the footage in there was mine! I could barely control myself when I saw my documentation on the big screen. I felt very proud to know these people, proud of all their work, engagement and investment in fundamentally establishing and developing contemporary Chinese art in global contexts. This was our world, and I suddenly realised what I firmly believe in right now. This is my world.

The film opened by talking of Ai Weiwei’s 40 cats that live on his studio compound in Beijing, and how only one of them knows how to open a door. He questioned why none of the other cats had learned from him how to do this and stated the difference between humans and cats is that when a human opens a door, they close it behind them, but when a cat does it, they leave it open…as if this was a metaphor for the government and the state in China…or contemporary Chinese art. The film gives a vivid and in-depth account of Ai Weiwei’s life and artistic career…very purely represented, which is what I think makes it a success. There is no real embellishment or sense of “Hollywood” about it…you feel its reality, the reality of China’s authoritarian regime, getting a near true understanding of what it is to be an artist there, and also that Ai Weiwei is not just an artist but takes on so many other roles…advocate, leader, father, husband, adulterer, thinker, philosopher…the list goes on. I couldn’t help but think, in part, that some integral perspectives regarding his relationships and personal life were glossed over that would have given a more balanced view of his situation…such as his relationship to women, his relationship to other artists (though I do realise other Chinese artists would probably not want to take the risk of putting themselves in the spotlight like this or in direct association with Ai Weiwei), also his relationship to specific Communist party members…though I realise that you can’t say everything in a film. I came out of the small cinema smiling and content as this is my reality right now, well a reality that I stepped back into last week…and I’m really in the thick of it, even if it does feel on the periphery sometimes.

After having an “Ai Weiwei Summer”, it felt like these works were merely comments, statements on the current state of play in China…almost like a record, a form of physical and visual documentation…rather than, as with his previous works, having the ability to create a formative (political) and subversive reaction or movement. It feels like the public are now taking on that role for him since his release and silencing after his detainment, where the final image in this post clearly represents this. I came across it a couple of days ago. Taken at dOCUMENTA (13) contemporary art festival in Kassel, Germany, where visitors are seen posing with portraits of Ai Weiwei, used as masks, in front of ‘The Importance of Telepathy’, a sculpture by Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This demonstration was part of the project “All for Ai Weiwei”…have the people now become Ai Weiwei’s art? Or was this always the case?

Photo by Uwe Zucchi/AFP/Getty Images


  1. I have a book of Ai Weiwei’s architecture, and I wonder f it’s in there that I read a description of him learning as a child how to literally make your home out of a hole in the ground. Some of his childhood was spent in one of the parts of China where buildings start by people making a cave in the rock / soil. I lived at one point in an area where there are still lots of those houses being lived in, and it made me think people there had a very different relationship with the ground to the one the rest of us have. I’d wondered about this again when I saw the Serpentine Pavilion photos – as well as all the things you’re thinking.

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