From Bonny Dot Cassidy & Rory Dufficy
Subject: Ai Wei Wei – what did you think?
Ai Wei Wei’s Under Construction comprises just four outstanding works, to which the rest of the survey offers almost no comparison. These great aesthetic leaps in his work are difficult to account for. The first, Ruyi, is a porcelain rendition of something between a manta ray and an intestinal tract, flushed with bleeding streaks of pink, blue and yellow colour and arched as if it were still pulsing from a live body. The second, Bench and Bed, reconstitute timber from Qing dynasty temples into glossy, polished seismographic undulations. Their ends, with the wooden sections fitted together, make intricate parquetry maps that are disconcerting and fine. And finally, Fairytale, the multifaceted, living artwork documented in over three hours of gobsmacking film, is as fascinating and real as the porcelain organs, and just as gut-wrenching. Like the (somewhat inexplicable) photographs of Ai Wei Wei’s installations in the Tate, the film is not the work itself but a remnant. What do we call the event that takes the title: a performance? Cultural intervention? Charity? Sensation? Or, to use the terms of our favourite Jesuit, Michel de Certeau, the everyday? With Fairytale Ai Wei Wei has taken his tired message and translated it through the bodies, minds and lives of 1, 001 people. It’s at this point that his activism becomes truly interesting.
So what happens in between? A repeated narrative of the human effort to create foundations, specifically China’s attempt to replace, refashion or raze its physical, aesthetic and historical bed. Ai Wei Wei finds a plethora of forms with which to reiterate this message – he’s nothing if not technically flexible and confident – but this doesn’t alleviate the heavy-handed and simplistic conceptualization of his Han vase emblazoned with ‘Coca-Cola’, or a photographic triptych of the artist smashing an ancient vase. The motif of salvaged Qing timber is arresting but the act itself, on which the work relies, doesn’t have the same strength as ‘Fairytale’ to transport an audience further. I feel that Ai Wei Wei is a man of ideas and thought, not always of aesthetic finish; or is it that everything he’s done until Fairytale has been a building-toward that work, with a few passing flashes that have anticipated its unique strength?
Subject: RE: Ai Wei Wei – what did you think?
I agree with you almost wholly and am thus paralyzed. I’m further confound by what I see as two other problems in writing about Ai Wei Wei, the first being, as you suggest, the frustratingly ephemeral nature of much of the work on display (the photos of Wei Wei giving the finger to various western and eastern cultural monuments were particularly egregious). The second is the trouble in writing about Wei Wei in a way (way) that avoids the usual bromides about the ‘lightning fast’ change that is occurring in much of China. It is difficult to situate ourselves as (western) viewers without resorting to these clichés, and in some way I think he is deliberately setting out to problematise that relationship. In, for example, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Wei Wei seems to be challenging us with the deliberate destruction of what received opinion considers to be valuable cultural heritage – in each photo of the triptych he stares imperiously at the camera, challenging the viewer to come up with an appropriate response. Of course, the work, made in 1995, could also be read as a challenge to the Chinese viewer with an allegory of apparently pointless destruction, a thought that might occur to those in China watching the rapid erasure of heritage in the rush to modernize. The same ambivalence can be seen in Wei Wei photographs of construction sites and new high rises that already seem to be heading towards desuetude.
As for Fairytale, it too might be looking to complicate the viewer. In one way, of course, it is exactly what it says it is: a fairytale where poor Chinese get to see the world for the first time, riding on the coat-tails of an heroic artist. Wei Wei complicates this (again) by housing the holidaymakers in workhouse dormitories for the edification of well-heeled, culturally-sophisticated art viewers (the piece was, after all, for Documenta). This, then, is once again turned back in on itself by the incredibly moving documentary of these people’s experiences, and one feels that if the entire point of Fairytale was to tell their stories then it justified the enormous expense in way that art of this nature rarely does. Wei Wei’s work might well be ‘under construction’, but this work, which was in effect demolished, is imperishable.