Ai Weiwei: Interlacing
Photos and videos by the imprisoned Chinese artist
Added on November 1, 2011
Beijing's tax authorities have
ordered Ai Weiwei to pay 15 million Yuan (€1.8 million)
Added on June 22. 2011
According to the Chinese news
agency Xinhua, Ai Weiwei was released on bail on June 22, 2011
“because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as because of
a chronic disease he suffers from.” The artist was accused of tax evasion
and destruction of accounting documents. He is reportedly willing to pay the
outstanding taxes. His sister, Gao Ge, said that Ai Weiwei has returned to
Article added on June 1, 2011
The imprisoned Chinese artist
Ai Weiwei has a close relation
with Switzerland. The Lucerne gallery owner Urs Meile is representing him
since 1997. The former Swiss ambassador in China and the world's leading
contemporary Chinese art collector, Ueli Sigg, has helped the artist emerge
on the art scene. Ai Weiwei's first solo museum exhibition took place at Kunsthalle
Bern in 2004. Currently, the first major exhibition of
photos and videos by the Chinese artist is on view at Fotomuseum Winterthur
(until August 21, 2011; from February 21 to April 29, 2012 at Jeu de Paume,
Ai Weiwei (*1957) is a conceptual artist, sculptor, photographer, architect,
blogger, twitterer, cultural critic, interview artist, dissident and
The Fotomuseum Winterthur exhibition title “Interlacing” refers to Ai
Weiwei's networking and communicating skills. He brings life into art and
art into life. He does not separate art from life, a bit like
with his concept of the artist as a
“social sculpture”, although Ai Weiwei rejects the association with Beuys. The
Chinese artist rather emphasizes the importance of
for his work. From those artists, Ai Weiwei developed his self-consciousness
as a conceptual artist, which is in contrast to the Chinese tradition where
the perfect brush stroke is important. Ai Weiwei's credo as an artist is
“We have to set up a structure”, in the way Andy Warhol put up his “Factory”.
In this context, Urs Stahel pointed out to the architect Ai Weiwei who,
incidentally, had never had any training as an architect: he would tell his
collaborators to build a wall with only two-thirds of the bricks they would
normally use; it was up to his collaborators to come up with a way to do it.
Ai Weiwei's life became a work of performance art, followed in total by 17
million people all over China from 2005 to 2009. His blog was filled with
some 200,000 thousand cell phone photographs; after his blog was shut down
by the authorities in 2009, Ai Weiwei continued communicating with his
followers through twitter messages.
In an exclusive interview with the director of Fotomuseum Winterthur, Urs
Stahel told me that the initial idea about a photo exhibition came from a
2009-talk with Urs Meile, the gallery owner representing Ai Weiwei. Meile
told Stahel about the thousands of 1983-1993 New York photographs by Ai
Weiwei, which the artist only developed after his return to China. In May
2009 and in May 2010, Urs Stahel met Ai Weiwei in Beijing. They took the
decision to organize a photo and video exhibition. Since July 2010, one of
Ai Weiwei's assistants was charged with the project. The assistant selected
some 30,000 out of 200,000 blog photos by Ai Weiwei. On twelve monitors,
2000 photos per monitor are shown in slide shows in Winterthur. On two
additional monitors, an important selection of Ai Weiwei's blog texts are
shown (in an English and a German translation; the original blog was in
Chinese, using also pictograms for
“subversive” messages). The assistant also chose some 17 hours of video footage
to be shown in the exhibition, always in connection with Ai Weiwei himself.
The Fotomuseum Winterthur exhibition was set up under the supervision of Ai
Weiwei, who was only unable not approve the final images selected for the
accompanying catalogue because he ended up in prison in an unknown location
on April 3, 2011; incidentally, only as late as on May 20, 2011 Ai Weiwei
was accused of tax evasion and of destroying accounting documents, according
to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
During my interview, Urs Stahel emphasized the importance of Ai Weiwei
spending his youth with his father, the once respected poet Ai Qing, who had
been banned from writing for twenty years. Mao had banished the poet for his
“revisionist thoughts”. As a consequence, the father spent thirteen years
cleaning toilets, accompanied by his son.
The irony is that, in 1981, Ai Weiwei had left China for the USA
because he considered his mother country too politicized. After his return
to China in 1993, he became the quintessential political artist.
Chinese sheet music
Urs Stahel is quoting a 2009 interview Ai Weiwei gave to the IHT:
“I came to art because I wanted to escape the other regulations of society. The
whole society is so political.”
Both in my interview as well as in the catalogue, Urs Stahel points out to
the fact that Ai Weiwei sees his role as
“an active part of the enlightening, clarifying elements in the world”,
especially in a totalitarian society such as China.
His self-questioning in his visual diary about himself and the world found
an important echo in the Chinese online community. Therefore, Ai Weiwei was
and is a thorn in the regime's side.
One of the artist's assistants told me that Ai Weiwei's Fake Design
office in Beijing is under close supervision by the regime, which installed
a surveillance camera at the entrance to monitor all visitors. During the
height of the
“Jasmine revolution” in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime had a van parked outside
the office 24-hours.
The famous 1995-triptych Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn,
which is part of the exhibition, is a sign of protest by Ai Weiwei against
the regime's destruction of the Chinese cultural heritage. Not only
artefacts are lost, entire city districts are destroyed and completely
rebuilt. Ai Weiwei opposes the tabula rasa policy explicitly in the
2002-2008 Provisional Landscapes series, of which 75 inkjet-prints
are part of the Fotomuseum Winterthur exhibition.
The Chinese regime seems to be fragile. It reacted harshly to prevent any
spreading of the
“Jasmine revolution” from the Arab world to China. At the same time, the left
hand of the regime does not know what the right hand is doing. The regime is incompetent
and corrupt. Part of the explanation - and the only hope -
is that the Communist Party may not be as monolithic as it may look.
To imprison Ai Weiwei is a sign of incompetence of the Chinese regime. It
was the best way to make the artist even more famous both in China and
around the globe. The same had happened in 2010 with the crackdown on the
Peace Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Both of them have become household
names around the globe.
Ai Weiwei considers himself a connecter, rebel, communicator and enabler.
His way of interlacing was what frightened the hardliners of the Chinese
“Communist” China, the top one-percent of society owns sixty percent of the
country's wealth. The emperor is naked and knows it. Anyone pointing out to
“weaknesses” becomes an enemy of the state. The regime needs reform, the faster
Ai Weiwei “believes that China has yet to experience a large-scale modernist
movement, whose basis is the liberation of human nature and the spread of
humanity. Democratic politics, material wealth and the education of all
citizens in the society are the soil for modernism, yet all of these are
only idealized pursuits for a developing country like China. Modernism is
the questioning of traditional humanist values and critical thinking of
living conditions, and is so far missing in Chinese society, where
individual and intellectual value is largely dismissed. Ai's photographs and
act of photographing hold up a mirror to this void, and show how he strives
to fill it” (Carol Yinghua Lu in the Winterthur catalogue).
Catalogue and exhibition Ai Weiwei: Interlacing, available in English,
German, organized by Urs Stahel, Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland) and
Jeu de Paume (Paris, France), published by Steidl Verlag Göttingen
(Germany), 495 pages. Order it from
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Ai Weiwei: Ai Weiwei Portrait. Photo copyright
© Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei: Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn, 1995
Triptych, C-prints, each 150 x 166 cm. Photos copyright
© Ai Weiwei.