The Case for Ai Weiwei | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

NARRATOR: In 1995,
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei photographed himself as he
picked up a 2000-year-old urn and let it smash to the ground. If we’re appalled when
cultural heritage is destroyed in the name of god
and state, how can we possibly defend Ai’s action? How can we buy a ticket to
see photos of it in a museum? How can those photos sell
for over a million dollars? How can this man be one of
the most renowned artists of our time? This is the case for Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei was born
in Beijing in 1957 to writer Gao Ying and
famed poet Ai Qing, whom communist leader Mao
Zedong initially embraced, but soon after denounced
during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1958. The family was exiled to labor
camps in remote provinces until the end of the
Cultural Revolution in 1976. They then returned to Beijing. And Ai– and by that, I
mean AI Weiwei– enrolled in Beijing Film Academy
in 1978 and co-founded a group of avant garde
artists called The Stars. In 1981, he decamped
to the US and settled in New York, where he
scraped by, hung out with his neighbor, renowned
beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and took lots and
lots of pictures. He also immersed himself in
art, studying Marcel Duchamp and considering the idea of
readymade as a way to make art. When he returned
to China in 1993, he met with a country
undergoing tremendous change. Many were still reeling from the
1989 Tienanmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. And Deng Xiaoping’s focus
on economic development had tripped off the
massive transformation of China’s cities. Ai’s urn dropping occurred
not long after his return. But his irreverence had
surfaced before that. He turned a critical eye
toward all edifices of power at home, as well as abroad. Well-versed in antiques, he knew
the value of historic objects and the symbolic power
of manipulating them. Chinese antiquities
became Ai’s raw material for a new kind of readymade,
dynamically synthesizing the clash between
reverence for the past and the irrepressible
drive toward the future, for modernization
is a mixed bag. With change, there is loss. History is erased. How can we condemn an artist
for destroying cultural heritage when his government has raised
neighborhoods and entire cities to build new roads,
buildings, giant dams, and Olympic stadiums? Ai’s work allows us to
reckon with the destruction that construction requires. But to be clear, he is more
of a creator than destroyer. He has repurposed wood
from demolished temples and transformed it into
intricate and dramatic installations. He takes a basic unit– say, an
antique stool– and multiplies it, compounds it, to
see where it takes us. History that would otherwise
be relegated to dusty shops or landfills is made strikingly,
unforgettably visible. And he has found new
uses for old techniques, hiring craftspeople adept in
ancient joinery traditions. He has enlisted the most skilled
porcelain makers in the world to demonstrate their mastery,
commissioning exquisitely made copies and objects like
watermelons, crabs, and millions and millions
of sunflower seeds. He has embraced the handmade
within an economy whose incredible growth has been
fueled by automation and mass production. He has synthesized
traditionally Chinese materials to think about the
part in relationship to the whole, the self in
relationship to the collective. “If a nation cannot face
its past,” he has said, “it has no future.” And Ai is equally
concerned with the present. In 2008, when the Sichuan
earthquake struck, he visited the region in
the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to
gather the names of the dead, addressing attempts by
authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of
schoolchildren who died because of poorly built schools. He amassed tons of twisted
rebar from the wreckage, painstakingly straightened
it, and assembled it into spare elegiac memorials. He arranged 9,000 backpacks
on the facade of the Haus der Kunst to Munich to represent
the young lives lost, spelling out a quote
from a victim’s mother. “She lived happily for
seven years in this world.” Ai has been a ceaseless,
unflagging voice for the voiceless. In 2009, he was beaten and
detained in his hotel room in Chengdu when
attempting to testify in the trial of human
rights activist Tan Zuoren. He visits with refugees
fleeing the war in Syria, organized a London walk of
compassion in their honor, covered his sculptures
with thermal blankets, and wrapped the columns
of Berlin’s concert hall with salvaged
refugee life vests. An early adherent
of social media, he’s an adamant
supporter of free speech. He reports on his
life in minute detail. He did so up until his
2011 arrest and confinement for 81 days on unfounded
tax evasion charges, as well as after. Authorities have demolished
his Shanghai studio, threatened to demolish
his Beijing studio, and forced him to
pay a tax evasion fine of 15 million yuan. He has been continually
surveilled and followed, prevented from leaving his
country, and through it all, has refused censorship within
China, as well as abroad. Not everything he
does is genius. But he remains committed to
reaching an ever wider public. His work does not sit
firmly in the realm of art, but radiates out. He’s often called an iconoclast. And an urn crusher
would certainly seem to adhere to
the definition. But there’s another way to
see Ai Weiwei, as someone who desperately wants
the cherished beliefs and institutions of China’s
past to be remembered and resuscitated. And in that sense,
as radicals go, he’s brilliantly conservative. His work is deeply rooted
in history and tradition. It is steeped in remembering,
valuing, preserving. He stands defiantly
opposed to a culture that wants to move on with
little regard for the past. He has resistance to
forgetting, to silence. His work asks us to consider
what we value, why we value it, and what we are accountable
for destroying, preserving, or transforming. He asks fundamental questions
about our human rights and responsibilities. Liberty,” he says, ‘is about our
rights to question everything.” Out of a source of
constant irritation, the oyster develops a pearl. Ai is that constant
source of irritation. And we are lucky not only
to bear witness to it, but to be called
to action by it. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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