Char­ac­ter build­ing

Chi­nese artist Ai Weiwei may have helped de­sign the Bei­jing Olympic sta­dium but, as Rowan Cal­lick dis­cov­ers, he’s any­thing but a party stooge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

THE blank wall sur­round­ing Ai Weiwei’s ex­tra­or­di­nary, monumental re­work­ing of a si­heyuan , or court­yard home, in the north­east­ern waste­lands of Bei­jing, car­ries this ad­dress: ‘‘ 258 Fake’’. Ai has a nose for phonies and no pa­tience with them. Of­fi­cial art in China to­day: it’s phony.

And as for the Bei­jing Olympic Games, for which he helped de­sign the re­mark­able na­tional sta­dium: it can go to hell.

Ai, the most prom­i­nent con­tem­po­rary artist work­ing in China, is unique; he’s also one of a Chi­nese type: un­bowed, witty in a la­conic way, at ease with him­self while not at all self- ab­sorbed, curious about ev­ery­thing, and im­pec­ca­bly po­lite.

How does he see him­self? He casts around in ex­traor­di­nar­ily ar­tic­u­late English: ‘‘ Maybe a con­fused man,’’ he says. ‘‘ Some­times with­drawn. Some­times an­gry. I don’t know how to de­scribe my­self . . . I’ve been called many, many ti­tles, and I prac­tise in many fields. But I’ve not grown used to any of them.

‘‘ If you’re ask­ing about my pro­fes­sion, yes I’m an artist. That’s best, it leaves lit­tle to ex­plain. Art to­day is about at­ti­tude and lifestyle. The rest fol­lows.’’

He in­her­ited his qui­etly ques­tion­ing dis­po­si­tion from his fa­ther, he says. ‘‘ I grew up in a very strong po­lit­i­cal back­ground. It was a very hard­core com­mu­nist na­tion and my fam­ily was in a dam­aged con­di­tion.’’

His fa­ther, Ai Qing, was one of China’s most fa­mous po­ets. ‘‘ He could be quite emo­tional and very di­rect in ex­press­ing his feel­ings. But he didn’t have much po­lit­i­cal skill and wasn’t too prac­ti­cal. I’m very much like him.’’

Ai Qing was lured into some overly di­rect ex­pres­sion by Mao Ze­dong’s ‘‘ let a hun­dred flow­ers bloom’’ cam­paign that sought out the views of artists and thinkers and then rounded up those branded as right­ist. He and his fam­ily were ex­iled from their Bei­jing home for al­most 20 years from 1958, first to the re­mote north­east, then to Xin­jiang in the equally re­mote north­west.

Ai Qing, whose po­etry is again widely avail­able and well known in China, died 12 years ago. ‘‘ I never had a chance to hear his po­ems at school or even inside the fam­ily,’’ Ai Weiwei says. ‘‘ He was an en­emy of the state, his po­etry was for­bid­den and burned by the whole na­tion.’’

A friend later told Ai Qing that he had hid­den some of his po­etry un­der a large pot used for stor­ing rice. From this makeshift ar­chive, some of Ai Qing’s po­etry was re­stored.

Ai Weiwei’s favourite poem by his fa­ther be­gins: ‘‘ Snow falls on China’s land/ Cold block­ades China.’’

Even Pre­mier Wen Ji­abao now quotes from Ai Qing, es­pe­cially the cou­plet: ‘‘ Why are my eyes al­ways brim­ming with tears?/ It is be­cause my love for this land is so deep.’’

‘‘ We knew our fa­ther was fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial, but anti- revo­lu­tion­ary,’’ Ai says. ‘‘ He had to do hard labour and ad­mit his crime. They ac­cused him and beat him and forced him to say what he had done wrong. So there’s no glam­our there for me ( in dis­si­dence).

‘‘ He was a per­son who liked very much to read and think, he didn’t ex­plain him­self to us. He was very much alone. Some­times at mid­night, some­one would sneak in and bring a bowl of noo­dles, a trea­sure for us, and run away in the dark­ness. That was just life. A life any­where in China. And not just for one or two years, for decades.’’

When life changed for the bet­ter, with Deng Xiaop­ing’s kai fang or open door pol­icy, Ai Weiwei — now back in Bei­jing — at­tended the film academy there with direc­tors Chen Kaige ( Farewell My Con­cu­bine ) and Zhang Yi­mou ( House of Fly­ing Daggers ).

He was cat­a­pulted into pub­lic life when he joined the Stars group of avant- garde artists who showed their work in Bei­jing in 1979, just as eco­nomic free­dom — but not po­lit­i­cal or artis­tic free­dom — was break­ing the old Maoist mould. The group be­lieved ev­ery artist was a star, em­pha­sis­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ity in con­trast to the col­lec­tive iden­tity of the Red Guards.

‘‘ Artists be­lieve we have a way to carry our feel­ings, to ex­press our­selves and our own world views. This may be some­thing quite small, but still to be de­scribed as per­form­ing an il­le­gal act, or even as a counter- revo­lu­tion­ary, this forced us into a dis­si­dent sit­u­a­tion.

‘‘ But we were more dis­si­dent to our­selves than to any po­lit­i­cal en­tity.’’

They were de­nied ac­cess to the China Art Gallery with its uni­form so­cial­ist- re­al­ist style. They hung their works on the rail­ings of the gar­dens out­side. The po­lice closed this in­for­mal ex­hi­bi­tion down. Then on Na­tional Day, Oc­to­ber 1, they marched through Tianan­men Square to Bei­jing’s Com­mu­nist Party head­quar­ters un­der the ban­ner: ‘‘ We de­mand democ­racy and artis­tic free­dom.’’

The Stars were later given space at a gallery by a brave di­rec­tor. But of­fi­cial crit­i­cism was harsh and un­re­lent­ing and in 1983 they agreed to dis­band, most dis­pers­ing to chase their dreams be­yond the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

Ai went to the US. He ar­rived in Philadel­phia, then lived for a decade in New York, where ini­tially he at­tended the Par­sons School for De­sign. As a mem­ber of the ‘‘ lost gen­er­a­tion’’ who en­tered their teens dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Ai, 50, never had a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion in China.

He didn’t have much con­tact with US artists dur­ing his dozen years there. He went to gal­leries and worked for his liv­ing: house clean­ing, babysit­ting, car­pen­try, fram­ing and print­ing, ‘‘ but I never had a steady job’’.

When his fa­ther be­came ill, he re­turned to Bei­jing. ‘‘ I was dis­ap­pointed in China. Peo­ple had told me it was chang­ing so much. To me, it wasn’t. Just some sur­face change. The sys­tem was still there.’’

He couldn’t work through gal­leries be­cause they were cir­cum­scribed, so he pub­lished an un­der­ground book to pro­mote con­tem­po­rary cul­ture: ‘‘ It had some im­pact,’’ he says. A show he or­gan­ised in Shang­hai, called F . . k Off, with the work of 50 young artists, was closed down im­me­di­ately by po­lice. An aban­doned print­ing fac­tory be­came a clan­des­tine gallery: ‘‘ So I called it a ware­house, and no­body both­ered us.’’

In 1999 he gained ac­cess to a piece of land in the Caochangdi dis­trict of Bei­jing. He drew plans for a group of build­ings in one af­ter­noon and com­pleted them in 60 days us­ing lo­cal labour. It was soon lauded as ‘‘ the new Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture’’, some­thing Ai dis­misses: ‘‘ I never had a sec­ond to think about ar­chi­tec­ture.’’

About 40 peo­ple now live in this artists’ vil­lage, not far from the Dashanzi zone where gal­leries and cafes are mush­room­ing inside the Bauhausstyle build­ings of the sprawl­ing for­mer site of mil­i­tary fac­tory 798.

Why the ex­plo­sion of in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art, the mil­lions of dol­lars be­ing paid for works? Ai views the phe­nom­e­non in the con­text of China’s long cul­tural his­tory: ‘‘ China has al­ways val­ued art, it has a strong tra­di­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ Art has al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with good liv­ing, and un­der­stand­ing, and schol­ar­ship, and pass­ing im­pe­rial tests. We have de­ployed the most pro­found art skills and aes­thetic prac­tice.

‘‘ But this was halted for 50 years’’: the Mao years. ‘‘ China is just start­ing to re­gain its old cul­ture. And any coun­try’s art in­cludes the good and the less good, the more mean­ing­ful and the less so, the more and the less com­mer­cial.’’

Art, he says, has suf­fered from ne­glect and now from the new bu­reau­crats and the new rich, ‘‘ and the ruth­less be­hav­iour of the new de­vel­op­ers’’. Bei­jing ‘‘ is not a city de­signed by ra­tio­nal­ity, or even by good­will. The so- called elite are just the peo­ple who got rich first . . .

‘‘ Ev­ery­thing is based on profit. For the 30 years of open­ing up the econ­omy, all the prop­erty of the na­tion has been shift­ing into a few hands.

‘ China has al­ways val­ued art, it has a strong tra­di­tion’

There’s very lit­tle left af­ter this state cap­i­tal­ism, this mafia, has grabbed it.

‘‘ The big­gest of th­ese crimes con­sti­tu­tional and anti- com­mu­nist. And no one talks about it.’’

His mo­bile phone proves too in­sis­tent to ig­nore. Ai nods du­ti­fully, and nods again. It’s his mother, telling him: ‘‘ Look af­ter your health. And don’t get into any more trou­ble by talk­ing to for­eign jour­nal­ists.’’

He sighs and con­tin­ues, more in sor­row than anger. The $ 200 bil­lion makeover of Bei­jing, he says, has in­cluded al­most no con­tem­po­rary art.

The Olympic Games are ‘‘ a pro­pa­ganda show, a gi­ant masked ball. The im­pact of the Games has been ex­treme. They’ll take any ex­cuse to de­velop the city. Ev­ery­one has used the Olympics as an op­por­tu­nity to do what­ever they can, to push their plans through.’’

He cites as an ex­am­ple a new rule that res­i­dents of thou­sands of street- front build­ings in Bei­jing must in­vest in mock- her­itage curved roofs. In the process, he says, they will displace much that is gen­uinely his­toric. ‘‘ Some of­fi­cials are an­tiIt’s crazy. think any­thing old is dis­grace­ful, it’s bad. But many party mem­bers are also old. And they have to­tal power, they can spend money like em­per­ors.’’

Ai found him­self grap­pling with that power af­ter en­ter­ing, in con­junc­tion with Swiss firm Her­zog and de Meu­ron, a com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the Olympic sta­dium. They won, and cre­ated the ex­tra­or­di­nary curved steel struc­ture now uni­ver­sally dubbed the bird’s nest.

‘‘ From the start,’’ Ai says, ‘‘ we talked about what the build­ing might mean for the city be­fore and af­ter the Games. We cre­ated not just a build­ing but a park around it, where peo­ple can do tai chi and sing songs. To us it was both a play­ground and a mean­ing­ful space.

‘‘ I’ve been to the site twice and I’m very happy about the re­sult. It shows great crafts­man­ship and unity of de­sign. I’m very proud of the build­ing.’’

Ai’s work has been shown in Aus­tralia twice be­fore. At the 2006 Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney he pre­sented a world map made of 2000 lay­ers of cloth, with coun­tries cut out. At the Asia- Pa­cific Tri­en­nial in Bris­bane in 2006 he dis­played a chan­de­lier in the shape of a boomerang, made of 300,000 pieces of crys­tal.

He is about to re­turn for two ex­hi­bi­tions in Syd­ney: a ret­ro­spec­tive at the Camp­bell­town Arts Cen­tre and a new in­stal­la­tion at Sher­man Con­tem­po­rary Art Foun­da­tion in Padding­ton.

The Camp­bell­town show is billed as the first in­ter­na­tional sur­vey of Ai’s work, in­clud­ing sculp­ture, video and in­stal­la­tion. It in­cludes the spe­cially com­mis­sioned Mar­ble Chair : a Song Dy­nasty- style chair carved from a solid piece of stone, rather than wood.

‘‘ Ai Weiwei, more than any artist I know, takes the highly con­cep­tual to a deeply hu­man level,’’ cu­ra­tor Charles Merewether says.

The in­stal­la­tion in Padding­ton is con­structed from beams and pil­lars from dis­man­tled Qing Dy­nasty tem­ples. From its ori­gins in Ai’s Bei­jing stu­dio, it has been as­sem­bled, dis­as­sem­bled and re­assem­bled ‘‘ in some kind of se­cret or­der, so it can’t be clearly de­scribed’’, Ai says. ‘‘ You have to see it to un­der­stand.’’

It took Ai al­most a year to cre­ate, work­ing with 10 car­pen­ters, who used no nails. It’s spread across 200sq m, and view­ers can walk around as well as through it. That’s its name: Through .

‘‘ So it’s ab­stract,’’ he says. ‘‘ But of course there are also ref­er­ences to China, be­cause all the wood I’ve used comes from tem­ples de­stroyed in the name of de­vel­op­ment. It’s an­cient, hard wood, that I have bought from an­tique deal­ers who were go­ing to use it to make copies of an­tique furniture.’’ Fakes.

Ai Weiwei: Un­der Con­struc­tion is at Camp­bell­town Arts Cen­tre, Camp­bell­town, Syd­ney, May 2- June 29. Through is at Sher­man Con­tem­po­rary Art Foun­da­tion, Padding­ton, Syd­ney, May 1- July 26.

Ai Weiwei pic­ture: Natalie Behring

Con­cep­tual ca­chet: From far left, the Bei­jing Olympic sta­dium; Mar­ble Chair ( 2008); Hang­ing Man ( 1985); and Coca- Cola, Vase from the Ne­olithic Age ( 2006) by Ai Weiwei, right

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.