Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Art of Life - Meeting Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei the Great
The sun, which had not made an appearance since I stepped onto China's soil,  wiped away the persistent gray heavens on Sept. 15th. The air was breathable and the brick walls and bicycles and tedious traffic seemed to be refreshed. Today on my schedule, thanks to the help of many art friends, was a meeting with probably the most controversial artist in the world today at his home-studio where he has been on house arrest because he tells it like it is about life in China. He is a man who pursues freedom, freedom of expression, of life, of liberty and of movement. You either love him or hate him, I guess. I loved him with an exclamation point.

        Ai Weiwei is one of the kindest, gentlest, and unabashed advocates I've ever met.There is not a medium in the arts he has not tackled, from being architect on the extraordinary Bird's Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to The government considers him a revolutionary. To me, that's not such a bad thing to be, since in my faith, Jesus walked that road and told those of  us who are his servants, we had to do that too.  The government weapon against him is censorship, and that affects more than one - Many think he has amassed millions and isolated himself by being the enigma to the modern government of China. He just wants to do art and to be free to travel and spend time with his one child, a son. Ai Weiwei has a staff of 40 who have assisted him through thick or thin, with or without pay, and they make sure what he aims to create gets created.

Weiwei's new logo
        The world knows about Ai Weiwei. The government treats him as a criminal. Their weapon against him is censorship. Google, Facebook, U-Tube, Blogger, and other life lines to each other in the digital age - have been blocked for all. His crime is speaking up and criticizing the unfair. When there was an earthquake in Sechuan, and so many children were killed, and coverups and corruption interfered with recovery, Ai Weiwei exposed the "tofu-dreg schools" which collapsed so easily and took the lives of so many youngsters. He is still about getting names of those who died to the fore front, so that the masses are not treated like the masses but as if they were individuals who had lived on this earth.  He has uncovered more than 5400 names. He was arrested and beaten because of his involvement and was left with a cerebral hemorrhage. He still fights headaches.

        After the Cultural Revolution when the gates opened and artists leaped into the arena with an energy not seen anywhere, Ai Weiwei was one of the early avant guard art group called "Stars" - which included  many who also became controversial artists Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, Huang Rui, Li Shuang, Zhong Acheng and Qu Leilei. He lived in New York 1981-1993 where he was exposed to Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, artists who also broke the traditional to force the public to look at art and its meaning in a different way.

Entrance to Weiwei's
        We reached Ai Weiwei's brick walled compound, which he built  Cao Chang Di District are of Beijing turning a remote area into an innovative art community. Others followed. It was such a brilliant day and the sun felt good on my shoulders, I knew this was a good omen. Outside the metal door that enters his home and studio, sits a bicycle with a bouquet of flowers, indicative that he wants to ride away into freedom.       Bicycles are a frequent source of his installations and sculptures. But when I crossed the threshold, nervous as I could be, wondering if he really would speak with me and the well-known art journalist, Mai Yu, who accompanied us. His young assistants greeted us and then Ai Weiwei appeared, talking on the cell phone, which is his main line to the world. He spends hours on Twitter, and before things were blocked, he put photos on Facebook by the hundreds as he recorded things that made him wonder.  From the large patio, we walked into his "office", a huge wooden table on which the sun made abstract shapes. He sat right in the sun light. And we started little by little feeling each other out. When he smiles, he lights of the room, to use an old cliche, and he comments without restraint on how he feels about art and artists. He says over and over the role of an artist is to be an agitator, an point out corruption, pain and inconsistencies in what men say and do. Artists are not around to decorate but to install meaning and message into whatever they create.

Sharing our hopes
        Ai Weiwei's patrol is taking historical objects and turning them into something of questionable value. For his famous Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1994, he used an antique urn and made it an artifact of modern propaganda, a tongue in cheek comment on commercialism of the rare. He made 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds = seriously =in kilns in Chinas Jingdezhen.  He is concerned with fragments, momentary pieces. Fragments make up history, and in China with its billions of people, trying to move from being a fragment like everyone else, content to be just a fragment of the whole,  to be something more significant. Mao ZeTung directed everyone to be the same, to work together for a common cause, the state, and there was no room for individualism or achievement. Be a stitch in the knitted state, and go along with the program the government - then you are right. Ai WeiWei, as so many of us, things each unit, each fragment has its own personality, no matter how similar it is. This is what I interpret from his work and statements.

        He was rather bundled up with a jacket on when he greeted us, very informally. We sat down around the table - an he brought us green tea in a glass - I kept saying to myself, this isn't happening. My dream has come true. We talked as if there was no barriers, and there were none. I kept asking, what can I do? How can I help, which is a bit ridiculous since friends and artists all over the world have their hands reached out to him. His only restraint is the government's restraint on his movements outside his country. Yes, lots of artists are envious of his attention, but many enjoy the spaces and environments he has built as an architect in Cao Chang Di District. And trees are everywhere as the government planted them en masse preparing for the Olympics.

Cats come and go
        Make no mistake - Ai Weiwei loves his country and his passion is fighting for social justice and the rights of China's many citizens. He doesn't aim to harm anyone nor history. He just believes that his life, and the life of any artist worth his weight, should be as critic, advocate, and defender of freedom, no matter what the medium. The artist must take risks and not wallow in success, it's so contrary to the point. We know so much about world history because of the arts and crafts that recorded it. I think a thousand years from now, Ai Weiwei will be in the books. Once we appreciate that, our significance, then contemporary artist need to re-cycle, re-structure and re-think how the past weighs on or invigorates the future.

        One of his favorite "gestures" is taking selfies with the middle finger poised in front of governmental monuments, like the Mausoleum of Mao ZeDung, the White House, etc. I told him like all tourist I was going to Tiananmen Square the next day. He suggested I do a selfie using the same gesture. And, I'll tell you in advance, I did and texed the result to him. I may be presumptuous but I feel like I've joined his clan.

Ai Weiwei's bicycles
        After about an hour, Ai Weiwei's phone was on constant buzz, since he is directing exhibits of his work in far flung places, one being a show coming up in San Francisco (He cannot be there to put it together but his assistants heed to his word) it was time to move on. He autographed a catalogue for me and then gave me two of the porcelain sunflower seeds from the installation I had so admired. What treasures those are to me. I had brought Grizzlies items for his son and a bear fetish from the Native Americans, telling him for sure it was "NOT" made in China. He smiled and seem touched. It was so small an offering for such a gigantic experience.

         Then his last words to me, were - "If I need to talk to God, I'll get in touch." It took me off guard. I hope always to be a conduit to God, and take no credit for what or who I am. I'll never forget this encounter and pray that he will be given his passport again so his magnificent skills as an artist and an advocate, can wake up this world, especially the contemporary artists who are too much about themselves and not about others, all the fragments that are part of our lives.  God bless Ai Weiwei.

1 comment:

Sharon Bailey said...

Wow - what a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing, Audrey.