I've never thought much of Ai Weiwei's work; despite some of its undeniable power, he'd been compared to Warhol a few too many times for me to take him seriously. Well, it's time for me to rethink that.
First and second, there was Ai's refreshing seriousness and political boldness as a counterpoint to the apparent insufferable Japanese superciliousness [Hiroshi Sugimoto, I've been a fan for 15 years, but I'm looking squarely at you here] at the opening of his exhibition at the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills. From Philip Tinari's report for Artforum:
Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, like Ai a self-taught architect, closed the day's events with a lengthy encomium to his own recent projects, including a museum he designed and the first show--"naturally of my own work"--to be staged there. "Will there be a second show?" Ai rejoined.Wow, Shigeru Ban, I hope that wasn't as bad as it sounds.
Not surprisingly, the conversation often came back to Ai's recent brush with the law that led to the closure of his much-loved blog in early June. He jovially recounted a tale of calling the Caochangdi village police station to report the secret agents who were staking out his home and studio and who refused to show him their badges. (One of the plainclothes turned out to be the brother of the local patrolman--so much for that plan.) Many speculate that the troubles owed ultimately to the "citizen's investigation"--staffed by volunteers and mobilized via his blog--that canvassed the Sichuan disaster zone throughout the spring, collecting names and vital statistics on fifty-one hundred of the earthquake's youngest victims. For Ai, the unresolved carnage--60 percent of parents have not been able to reclaim their children's remains--owes much to shoddy school construction, and thus to party corruption. Under this pressure, the government released a figure of 5,335 dead schoolchildren just before the one-year anniversary of the May 12 quake. Asked point-blank by architect Shigeru Ban why he bothered to pursue this seemingly self-destructive personal campaign, Ai looked around at the hundreds of eyes fixed on him and replied bluntly, "If I don't use my social privilege to do this, I feel ashamed."
Now the AP reports that Ai and several other activists for earthquake victims were detained and "roughed up" by police in the Chinese city of Chengdu, in order to prevent them from attending and testifying at a trial of another earthquake protestor, Tan Zuoren. Tan, Ai, and others pushed for nearly a year to force the government to release the names of over 5,000 schoolchildren killed in last year's quake.
I can't think of another artist of Ai's prominence--he was credited with the idea for Herzog & deMeuron's Bird Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics--who has put himself and his reputation on the line politically to such an extent. It's remarkable, but it also makes me wonder just what the comparable artist and political issue would be here.