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Human Rights & Social Issues

A rare visit with Ai Weiwei, China’s loudest rebel


Ai Weiwei outside his studio's main office. Under near-constant surveillance by Chinese authorities, Ai lives and works on the premises. - JEFFREY MARLOW

Ai Weiwei outside his studio’s main office. Under near-constant surveillance by Chinese authorities, Ai lives and works on the premises. – JEFFREY MARLOW

The subject of the smartphone photo was one of the most prosaic imaginable: a cat, drinking from a stone trough. The man behind it, however, was Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most famous artists.

Only after the picture has been successfully uploaded to Instagram, without a hint of irony, does Ai become fully aware that I am in the room. We sit down at a sparse wooden table, and the oolong is served.

Ai has ruffled more than a few feathers in the Chinese government over the last decade with his unbridled pursuit of free expression and artistic commentary. Following several run-ins with the authorities, he’s been stripped of his passport, unable to leave the country. And so his fawning over the lazy resident felines of his Beijing studio, charting their every move like a proud parent, is part stop-and-smell-the-roses appreciation, part geopolitical necessity. For an internationally in-demand artist physically confined to a relatively minor art market, the ability to communicate and disseminate work over the internet is both a necessity and a godsend.

“For many years I’ve been carried away by this idea of talking to strangers,” says Ai, “talking to people you would never meet. And they would share their joy or their pain or anxieties. You can see how the Internet is really a celebration of the masses.”

Last November, the endlessly curious Ai broke through with his most engaging web-based work to date: the stark, ethereal “Moon,” a case study in 21st-century web-based collaborations and an alluring hint of what Ai’s future may hold. Co-conceived with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, “Moon” combines Eliasson’s infatuation with natural phenomena and Ai’s penchant for web-based dissemination.

“I’ve known Weiwei for a long time,” says Eliasson, “and we have spoken about art often enough. But we never had an opportunity to work together on something. I thought Ai’s situation would make that very difficult, but nowadays, the conversations we are having are not face-to-face; you can still share ideas disregarding the fact that you cannot be together.”

And so, “Moon” was born. The project is a digital platform (located at moonmoonmoonmoon.com) that urges users to stake out a quadrant of real estate on a lunar sphere and “make a mark” using a series of brushes and tools. The soft grey background recalls the squishy lunar regolith awaiting an astronaut’s bootprint, and the monochromatic palette maintains a clean simplicity. The site is a digital wall begging for graffiti, and like its celestial namesake, the appeal of “Moon” lies as much in its open possibility as its final form.

“From any point of view, the moon carries our imagination. Any culture, history, or religion can sense that,” says Ai. “But the scientific landing showed it’s just cold rock there, which quickly destroyed all of the beautiful ideas and imagination people had about the moon. To use ‘Moon’ in our project in a symbolic sense, it still carries our hope and our energy, our imagination. I think it’s a very lovely choice.”

People seem to agree: after about a month, roughly 50,000 people had heeded the call to participate. The resulting marks cover a wide range of skill, sophistication, profanity, insight, and forethought. It’s an intriguing window into the vast, amorphous, idiosyncratic “public” that Ai and Eliasson craved. There are abstract designs, mundane notes, delightful vignettes, and strategic uses of adjacent squares to tell a comic strip story or be more visible from a higher orbit. All of the marks accomplish the project’s ultimate goal of transcending physical limitations through the 1s and 0s of the electronic world.

The environmental context of a physical art show is critical, an essential aspect of how viewers experience the work, but it’s a side of the equation that Ai is no longer able to engage. “I’ve kind of had enough of these big exhibitions,” he confesses. “I wanted to work more on the internet, on this kind of communication, trying to be part of this discovery.” This shift was deliciously ironic: by restricting Ai’s movement, the Chinese government was forcing him to dive head-first into the exact type of internet-based work that got him in trouble in the first place.

A Window Into China’s Private Thoughts

Ai dates his internet involvement back to 2005, when he started getting involved in social media and engaging new types of audiences. He seems most fascinated by the connections that technology allows: in a modern Chinese society that valorizes self-sufficiency and privacy, the ability to interact with complete strangers was revolutionary, a window into previously inaccessible spheres of ideas. Private thoughts became shared thoughts, legitimizing and disseminating them.

Chinese authorities weren’t in such a festive mood. After Ai questioned the role of shoddy government school construction in the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren as a result of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he was bullied by officials, a drama documented in the 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. But it didn’t end there: in 2011, he was detained for 81 days, a period of interrogation and psychologically torturous monitoring, according to a report from Ai’s sister.

“For the public they used the name of tax fraud, or something very strange like that, to justify my arrest,” explains Ai. “But they directly told me it was because of my internet involvement, that it was a subversion of state power.” Although he was ultimately released, Ai’s captors did not return his passport, leading to his perpetual limbo.

Countrywide house arrest has bolstered Ai’s international stardom but crippled his ability to capitalize on it. As museums and galleries came calling, Ai found himself unable to go inspect sites, work with suppliers, or network with gallerists. Nonetheless, he has managed to maintain an impressive schedule of shows, dispatching employees to install the works he has designed.

During an look inside Ai’s studio, the rhythm of daily operation — a hybrid of humming 21st century business and relaxed tinkering — came into focus. The compound-like establishment is surrounded by a 10-foot tall grey brick wall, and security cameras keep watch over the light blue door. (Just whose they are is unclear: in a famous episode of mischief, Ai responded to the authorities’ installation of CCTV cameras by putting up even more of his own cameras to watch theirs.)

Inside the wall, a grass courtyard is dotted with the flotsam of the creative life — stone sculptures, manhole covers, porcelain pots, neon bikes. The nerve center of the operation is a set of eight desks inside a stone-floored room, and it is from here that Ai and a team of computer-savvy 20-somethings manage his creative empire. Seven of the workstations have wicker armchairs; Ai sits on a traditional wooden stool.

The programming effort taking place around the world to keep “Moon” humming offers a glimpse of what may be in store for Ai as he seeks to maintain, and even broaden, his global operation. The Beijing complex is a hive of activity, as hip, urbane young workers tap away at keyboards, sip tea at a communal table, or carry bulky, incongruous objects (art? trash?) from one white-walled room to another.

Back in his studio, Ai puts brush to paper, recreating his son’s latest drawing and contemplating the nuances of computer screen-mediated sketches. “It’s a different kind of control and touch, with different tools,” he explains, drawing wispy arcs with a flick of the wrist, “a different effort, like writing with your opposite hand.”

To Eliasson, the awkward digital penmanship is part of the feel of “Moon.” “We wanted it to be analog,” he says. “As clumsy as it may be, it’s still a hand dance, it represents a little set of movements, and there’s always a degree of signature in that.” This interplay between mass involvement on the internet and personalized physicality is a central tension for the web-based experience, one that Eliasson believes has hurt companies like Facebook and Twitter, as “the mechanization of the friends and following phenomena wears you out.”

The simplicity of “Moon” is more feature than bug, a series of conscious decisions from the development team to not over-engineer the concept. For the meticulous, exacting Eliasson, such restraint was difficult. “I have been challenged by the fact that I am not in control,” he admits. “There’s not really any guidance, people are not told what to do. That’s very liberating, but also scary.”

Unexpectedly, by ceding control to the users, the commons became an attraction of its own. After the first few marks, “people spent a lot more time looking around, moonwalking, and only later occasionally making a mark,” says Eliasson. “It makes people a little more thoughtful about what they make.”

Moon” certainly has the feel of an experiment – an experiment that in Ai’s typical style, merges art and politics. “There is a tendency to see Ai Weiwei the artist on one side,” says Eliasson of his collaborator, “and Ai Weiwei the activist on the other. But that formalizes the works unnecessarily; the political core of Ai Weiwei lies in the work.” And even as the Chinese authorities continue to play politics, Ai sees a glimmer of hope.

“Things are changing, not because the power wants to change, but rather because the power is being pushed to change by ideas,” says Ai. “The people, with today’s technology, already sense the light at the end of the tunnel. They cannot stay in the dark forever, it’s not possible.”

And while Ai’s his star continues to rise — he was recently named one of the ten greatest living artists by a Vanity Fair poll — and his political situation remains in limbo, Ai says he simply will continue to do what he’s done for years: connect people through free expression. “I see the need in people’s hearts,” he says, “no matter how unknown you are, how fragile you are, you still need expression. It’s a sign of life, and that sign is so powerful.”

Source: Wired.com – “A Rare Visit With Ai Weiwei, China’s Loudest Rebel” 
 
 
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