Ai Weiwei Picturing Resistance in the Past and the Present

Ai Weiwei pictured in front of the demolition of his Shanghai studio last week.
Image from CBC News/ AFP Getty Images

This past week artist and activist Ai Weiwei watched as the Chinese government held fast to its promise of demolishing his Shanghai studio—the same artist who was recently honoured with a large scale exhibition in one of the most prestigious art museum’s in the world, London’s Tate Modern.  When I first posted about Ai’s compelling and much discussed installation at the Tate this past fall, there were already many signs that the artist’s high profile presence on the world stage would have little impact on the persistent surveillance and suspicion to which he was subjected in his home country. In early November only weeks after Ai’s opening in London, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese writer and professor Liu Xiabo created considerable controversy within Chinese ranks. In fact, many observers now believe that this has lead to the increasing crack down by the Chinese government on dissidents, activists, professors and other individuals deemed “agitators” to the nation.

Hundreds of images of the demolition (like this one taken from flickr) have been
appearing on the Internet over the past week in both news and blogs.
As reported by numerous news outlets in early November, Ai was notified with little explanation or notice that his newly built Shanghai studio—a space that ironically enough the Shanghai authority originally asked the artist to build as an extension of his practice in his hometown of Beijing—was slated for demolition. In response Ai quickly began to organize what he called a “going away party” via Twitter and email, arranging for the demolition to be part of his first and last work of art in the Shanghai space. When word spread of the plans, China’s most internationally acclaimed visual artist was placed under house arrest in Beijing even as hundreds of supporters made their way to the site (many of them being questioned and detained by the local police).  Still, the final demolition was postponed, and it was only last week without warning that the destruction began. Ai, tipped off by neighbours, made his way to the site and began shooting photos and videos of the demolition—images that have now been circulating for the past week on the Internet.

Ai Weiwei as a young artist in New York-- many of the
thousands of photographs he took captured scenes of
urban tension and protest.
What many people may not know about Ai WeiWei is that his interest in photography and capturing images of conflict have long and deeply connected roots to his early days as an émigré artist in New York City. As part of the first generation of Chinese students allowed outside of their country since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Ai captured his experience through more than 10,000 photographs from the early 1980’s to early 90’s. Looking at the images of the Shanghai demolition, I was immediately reminded of the images I had recently viewed in a video piece shot by filmmaker Alison Klayman chronicling the artist’s use of the camera and in particular the many images of protest and racial discrimination/tension that he captured (see video below). Klayman has been working on the first feature-length documentary on the artist called Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and she reveals how most of these images remained untouched and even undeveloped until 2008 when a small number of them were first shown in a Beijing photography exhibition.    

In an interview with the New Yorker this past week, Ai reflected on the Chinese government actions towards him and the apparent short sightedness the demolition of his studio carried within the frameworks of contemporary art production and circulation of meaning:    “I thought, huh, the destruction of it has already made it art. Art exists in different forms. What is art? Should we go back to the age of only sculpture? At least a hundred thousand people knew this news over the Internet. They watched it in front of their eyes.” It will be fascinating to see what impact, if any, the circulation and broader news of these developments will have in the brewing debates and outcomes concerning China’s treatment of its public intellectuals, cultural figures, and especially its contemporary artists.  If nothing else, it is certain that the continuing documentation and uncontrollable distribution of these kinds of images will keep the conversation going.

Alison Klayman's video piece created for Tate Shots and teaser clip from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, set for release in 2011