Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (super-legitimized in the art world by being persecuted by the Chinese government as a “political dissident”) makes large scale, conceptual installations as political protest. People are wondering, however, whether such conceptual art can do justice to the political realities it claims to tackle, if an artist such as Ai Weiwei can take it upon himself to represent the suffering of others, and if he’s appropriating their tragedy for his personal legacy.
My first reaction upon seeing the refugee vest installation was that it was decoratively beautiful, especially at night, when artificial lights illuminated the reflective material of the vests. And my knee-jerk initial devil’s advocate thought was, “millionaire artist appropriates plight of the desperate for personal glory,” or something along those lines. If you attempt meditation at all, which I sometimes do, you know that when you pay attention to the arising of thoughts in your own mind, dumb-ass sentences perpetually glide in seemingly out of nowhere. First thoughts are often occurrences that one consciously filters out and rejects on arrival. I know I’m a bit biased against large scale conceptual art (more for the rhetoric surrounding the practice than for the actual art) and have to work past my own sentiments to come to an objective and at-all fair assessment of the work in question.
My next tactic, if I want to examine something further, is to let things just settle and wait a bit, withhold judgement, and do a bit of research. And just now my girlfriend came into my room to ask me if I want to go get some food, and so I tried to get her opinion, without tainting it with my own ideas. She did a rather good defense of the work, mentioning it could draw attention to the refugee crisis, and the sheer mass of vests climbing the columns helps one grasp the massive numbers of refugees who have made the perilous journey. She asked if the alternative is to not be able to make political art at all. Good question.
A day later I’ve had time to sleep on the issue and a few bold points have surfaced. But first something I researched yesterday before lunch. The vests, as I suspected, came in all colors, and not just orange.
This interested me because of the element of aestheticization and formalization going on. I wondered if looking at the piles of vests in all colors where they’d actually been discarded would have a more powerful impact than seeing only the orange ones arranged beautifully ascending columns outside a concert hall. The element of chance and chaos is removed in the very formal and decorative arrangement. More about that later.
The most glaring questions for me right now are:
- Does it matter who the artist is? Is Ai Weiwei entitled to do work about refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
- Does it matter what the artist’s politics are? Can these same predictable artistic tactics be used for conservative politics?
- Is the work really “conceptual art”, since we don’t need to ask ourselves anymore if it is or isn’t art, and don’t need to refer to a conceptual argument to explain why it is art?
- Does the work really tell us anything about the refugee crisis, and how effective is installation art at increasing social awareness in general?
I’ll attempt to answer these questions.
Does it matter who the artist is?
I think it really does matter, whether it truly should or not, which the recent controversy over the photo of Ai Weiwei posed as the drowned Syrian refugee child proves.
Toby Fehily wrote in the Guardian:
If he’s identifying with Kurdi, he shouldn’t – there are no useful comparisons to be drawn between a refugee child dead at the age of three and a highly successful living artist.
Hamid Dabashi wrote in Al Jazeera:
What actually happens when we see the rather well-fed body of a grown-up man lying on a shore and pretending, mocking, or representing, even in perfectly mournful solidarity, to remind us of the lifeless body of a three-year-old boy?
What I think we are facing today is a critical crisis of artistic representation – the fundamental failure of conceptual art as we know it today to come to terms with realities that have trespassed national, regional, or imaginative geographies of representation.
Dabashi ended his article with this judgement:
Ai Weiwei the artist died in – and with – that fake death. That picture, perhaps, was his greatest work of suicidal art.
And Nitasha Dhillon, in the virulently radical Hyperallergic, asked:
Is this what a bleeding heart with privilege thinks activism or political art looks like today? Is what I am staring at in amazement of its stupidity simply a failure of imagination, an attempt to use one’s privilege strategically in the struggle for social justice gone terribly wrong?
I can reliably count on Hyperallergic to take things to the extreme as a starting point, and then shift into hyper-drive in order to seem more radical and hence more relevant. Dhillon requires that Ai Weiwei apologize, and asserts:
You want to help refugees. There is no helping without being in tune. You are not in tune.
This is probably the most flack Ai Weiwei has received outside of China. I’m not sure what to make of the photo, and am perplexed rather than righteously outraged. Surely I’d reserve my true outrage for the selfish and corrupt policies, and the violence and brutality which directly caused the death of Kurdi, and countless others. I have a difficult time, perhaps as a white
devil male, passionately spewing self-righteous invective condemning someone else’s rhetorical position on an issue, and demanding metaphoric heads on platters (the “amazing stupidity” of his work, his career is dead, and he needs to publicly apologize for moral transgressions). I don’t think I can comfortably wear that hat.
What I can be pretty confident about is that Ai Weiwei’s intentions were good, and things went horribly awry. He appears to have been blissfully unaware of how such an image would be perceived by others, and overestimated the free pass from radical left political oneupmanship that his Chinese dissident status had previously shielded him from. If he were white, the photo would have also have been branded “racist” and”white supremacist” – rhetorical torches would have been lit, pitchforks wielded, and a social media witch hunt initiated.
On the other hand, if he were a Syrian artist, and if he’d been a refugee himself, people may not dare criticize the photo for fear of how they would be perceived for doing so. My point is that in the realm of political art, or art judged through the radical political lens, it is entirely relevant WHO the artist is, even if the artwork in question is identical. There is good reason for this, because the identity of the author can dramatically change how the work is interpreted, but I also think artists should be entitled to make work about any political topic which moves them. I like to think that we can all potentially relate with everyone else on a meaningful level.
To me it looks like he was attempting to put himself in the boy’s proverbial shoes, and remind his audience to take a moment to empathize. It was a photo for an article in the magazine India Today, to accompany an exhibition at the Indian Art Fair, so I’m not sure it should be treated as an independent, deliberate, realized work of art.
The big problem isn’t attempting to walk in someone else’s shoes for a mile, so to speak, but depicting yourself as that person. Imagine if a white male artist were to depict himself being hung in order to identify with black victims of lynching. That truly would be professional suicide. But if a black man were to make similar images using himself, the reaction would be very different. On the other hand, if the white man depicted himself as part of the lynch mob, that could be received positively on the grounds of a critical acknowledgement of the benefit all white people enjoy because of the history of slavery and institutionalized racism, whether they acknowledge it or not, or some such politically correct justification.
To just look at the picture it seems as though Ai Weiwei is trying to accrue to himself the attention and even sympathy that the photo of the drowned boy attracted, in which case one may feel like he is capitalizing on someone else’s tragedy, and in so doing proves that he isn’t truly able to appreciate the terrible magnitude of the situation. However, does this grossly underestimate the activist artist, who has gone to Lesbos to research and document the plight of the refugees? I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It is always much safer to address ones own plight, as Ai Weiwei has done before, or the plight of a group one closely belongs to. At least that is what you are supposed to do.
Does it matter what the artist’s politics are?
Yes, and that is a bit of a problem. I can’t think of anyone attempting politically conservative “radical” art, and getting away with it. I wouldn’t especially want to see such cringe-worthy art, but it’s worth acknowledging that it’s tacitly forbidden. Let’s just imagine what would happen if someone DID make strongly conservative installations in the Ai Weiwei vein.
The “radical” techniques Ai Weiwei employs are nothing especially new. Christian Boltanski was using similar techniques back in 1988, and in 2010 created a very ambitious installation which included a 27 foot pile of clothes, representing human lives.
In his earlier work, Boltanski used nondescript photographs and clothes to create the effect of absences associated with the aftermath of the Holocaust. It’s not really apparent in the piece below, but Boltanski would fill rooms with such homages.
Boltanski wasn’t the first person to fill a room or cover a wall, but he came to mind because I saw his work in person in Los Angeles a couple decades ago, and was impressed by it. In 1976, Christo created an 18 foot high, 24 mile long fence, covered with over 2,000 nylon panels.
If the techniques Ai Weiwei uses are nothing out of the ordinary in the contemporary art world, it is their fusion with politics that gives his art its worth. Ai Weiwei is principally admired for his criticisms of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. His work happens to coincide nicely with Western demonization of China, but if he were instead to do work celebrating China in defiance of Western perceptions [I lived in China for over four years, and it’s nothing like I expected], in the same style, his work might be much less well received.
But let’s use an imaginary white male artist. Let’s say said artist has some substantial disposable income, and is well versed in the convention of large scale art installations, which is not difficult if you’ve gone to art school in the last 20-30 years. When I was in grad school over 20 years ago, you could ONLY do installations about politics if you wanted to be taken at all seriously. Let’s call our artist, Jimmy Ivory.
Jimmy Ivory is a Republican, and he decided to do an installation about police shot in the line of duty, er, NOW. The piece is called Cop Killings. As you approach the gallery, the immediate area is cordoned off, and everywhere there are painted (to look like chalk) outlines delineating where dead bodies have fallen. Other outlines surround the gallery walls on the outside. In total there are easily more than 100 bodies. At first people nod in solidarity with the dead black bodies. A few fists pump the air.
When you go in the gallery space, it’s an inverse of the outside, but instead of outlines there are stuffed officer’s uniforms in the same positions. This is most obvious on the glass windows where one side has the outlines and the other the uniforms. Maybe there are various lighting effects done with police lights, sounds of distant sirens juxtaposed with ambulance wails, funereal music and so on. The whole flip is that from the outside you assume it’s about people shot by cops, but when you get inside you realize it’s police shot by people.
The reviews pan the show for being insensitive to the victims of police brutality, and soon there are protests, and even threats of bodily harm to workers at the gallery if the show isn’t shut down. The show illustrates nothing other than the statistic for the number of police shot in the prior year, and wants us to consider their deaths as also something to mourn. The show is ultimately shut down amid increasing protest.
Undeterred – and partly because Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg and other famous conservatives praised the piece – Jimmy Ivory decides to tackle abortion, which, being a somewhat fundamentalist Christian, he is dead set against. His research indicates roughly a million abortions were performed in the U.S. the prior year. He goes to Starbucks with a pad of paper to sketch out his next grand installation over a cup of bitter coffee.
For each “aborted soul” he decides there will be one inflatable metallic balloon in the shape of a fetus. They will all be blue, to signify death. How to make it better? Sip, sip. Each balloon will be filled with stage blood, and they will explode at intervals over the course of a year. Ah, yes, it must be a year-long exhibit, and of course there is the danger of getting splattered with fake blood when a fetus randomly erupts, which will happen roughly once every 20-60 seconds, depending on approximate real world statistics. The balloons will be arranged artfully throughout the exhibition space. A combination of the sounds of wind-up musical boxes playing lullabies and perhaps Gustave Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) will be on infinite loop.
He refines his ideas and gets suggestions from other similarly minded conservative artists, and consults various specialists to rig the whole thing, orders the balloons special from a company, arranges a sympathetic gallery or other exhibit space, and has his assistants install the piece…
The show would be an abysmal failure. However well the art portion was done, and no matter how innovative, if the politics are considered regressive, irrelevant, or reactionary, the art will bomb.
While an installation must be done well in order to do justice to necessarily progressive politics, conservative politics are absolutely unacceptable no matter how creative the physical piece may be. At least I’ve never seen a conservative installation. It hadn’t even occurred to me to conceive of the possibility of one until I started writing this blog post. Certainly in my art education only radical politics were deemed at all worthwhile, and art was only as relevant as the issue the art addressed.
Must art be synonymous with progressive or even radical politics? I’m not really comfortable with that because I think people should be able to make art no matter what their politics are, and politics should not be the only or primary measure of whether art is any good. Even though some of my very favorites songs are overtly political, and “liberal” (Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Kimya Dawson’s 12/26, John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, Nina Simone’s Four Women, Camille Yarbrough’s, All Hid, and several offerings from Rage Against the Machine ), I don’t see why there couldn’t be a solid conservative song (works by Ted Nugent excepted, because they suck). Of course a lot of art, probably most of it, is not overtly political, and thus doesn’t fall into the treacherous terrain of contentious political debate.
Is the work really “conceptual art”?
We don’t need to ask ourselves if large scale installations are art anymore, and don’t need to refer to an argument to explain why it is art. We generally accept that it’s art. In Ai Weiwei’s case, I even wonder if it is “institutional art”: art made via and for the institution of art? Is the decade’s old formula of filling a gallery space, covering walls, or decorating the outside of it, just a hackneyed template that says far more about itself than whatever political content it chooses to address?
I’m sure people would take serious umbrage to switching calling “conceptual art” to “institutional art”, but the art has to be done with the cooperation of the institution, and is designed with an institution as an integral part of it (in the case of this exhibit, the Berlin concert house). The type of funding required is on an institutional level, and this style of art is taught in art institutions.
Your average struggling artist can’t just up and do an installation of this magnitude, covering the front of a major public building, especially if he or she isn’t loaded. Take a look at the picture below, and ask yourself how a “starving artist” can hope to compete, with whatever limited means are at his or her disposal, with the sort of production that requires a team of hired assistants, an enormous amount of money, all the right connections, art celebrity status, and a brand name.
Sure, sure, Ai Weiwei started off humbly, and it’s ostensibly possible for artists to get from where they are to where he is, and then employ their own assistants… That doesn’t change that there’s nothing you can do if you have a message and skill, right now, as an unknown artist, to compete on this monumental scale. Your average artist’s available arsenal of tools is to Ai Weiwei’s what a slingshot is to an aircraft carrier. I’m sure less than 1% of artists can arrange a crane as an aid in realizing their work.
It’s probably unfair to call the work institutional in terms of its intended content and message, but it is undeniable that this kind of artwork is no longer controversial in the mainstream art world. The two most famous and rich living artists, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, are both “conceptual” artists whose work, like Ai Weiwei’s, includes large scale, multi-million dollar spectacles coming out of the tradition of art leading back to Duchamp. This is the MOST accepted kind of contemporary art, and other styles have been pushed to the periphery.
Is there ever an expiration date on “radicality”? Found objects “ready-mades”, appropriation, and installation were academic decades ago, and yet they are presented today as if they are fresh and visionary.
Does the work really tell us anything about the refugee crisis, and how effective is installation at increasing social awareness in general?
If we didn’t already know the back story, could the work in question (I seriously can’t find a title for it) be interpreted as about survivors of a sunken ocean liner, or a flood? What does the art really tell us other than that there were a lot of life jackets, and an inflatable boat?
Most of us are not going to go to the Konzerthaus (“Concert House”) in Berlin to see the exhibition. We are left with photos of the artwork. But if we compare the photos of the orange vests covering the columns of the Konzerthaus, along with the black rubber boat, to photos of a boat and vests on the shore of the island of Lesbos, which are more revealing and moving?
Ai Weiwei’s tactic was mostly just to relocate the vests and a rubber dinghy to an art site. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that there’s more impact to seeing a site specific installation with a mass of 14,000 vests in person than seeing a photo on your smart phone. Even if that’s true, I think it would be still much more intense to stand on the actual shore of Lesbos, see the vests more or less where they were discarded, assay the rubber dingy, and look out on the Mediterranean sea where the refugees made the crossing and nearly 400 have perished this year. After getting a gut reaction of what an inkling of that journey must have been like, you look the other way and wonder how it must be to arrive on the shore and venture off into unknown territory, everything at stake. Ai Weiwei’s version is a bit like capturing a tiger and exhibiting it in a zoo. It’s a potted experience.
The same problem, as I see it, applies to Ai Weiwei’s piece, Remembering, 2009, about the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Ai Weiwei used 9,000 children’s backpacks to spell out the sentence, in Chinese, “For seven years she lived happily on this earth”.
The touching sentence comes from something one of the mothers said of her lost child. And here my first visceral impression is of clean, sterile, plastic-looking backpacks.
As it happens I lived in China when the Earthquake hit Sichuan. I lived in a small city nearby named Hanzhong, where I’d been teaching for just over a year, before quitting due to mismanagement of the school, mostly by my new lao-wai (foreign) manager. This is immaterial to the article, but, one of the most bizarre coincidences of my life. The Earthquake struck precisely as I handed my apartment key to the manager and he gave me whatever money they still owed me. We both ended up running out of the building as things were falling on us from above. Everyone was running into the street, people were crying and hysterical.
The school didn’t open again for over a month because people were afraid to be indoors, and then the teachers had to make up for missed classes, doubling their workload, without overtime pay. On top of that 2 other teachers quit, and a third simply didn’t return after a vacation. Had I not left when I did, my life would have been extremely hectic. Fortunately for me, I’d already secured a new teaching job in Vietnam, where I was headed the next day, via Chengdu, the epicenter of the earthquake. And to my surprise the morning after the quake, I was able to get a bus to Chengdu, and make my flight the following day.
What I’m getting at is that I experienced that quake, and it’s aftermath, though I was never in any real danger myself. My visceral associations with the quake are rubble, dirt, cracks in buildings, fallen walls, collapsed buildings, and things being crushed. Looking at Remembering, 2009, if I weren’t told what the sentence says and given context, I’d have no idea whatsoever what it was about. The shiny backpacks arranged perfectly on a pristine facade are the antithesis of dusty, dirty, crumbled brick buildings. The piece could work equally persuasively as a banner for a Furniture Sale, as long as you can’t read Chinese.
Remembering, 2009 is intended to call attention to the deaths of the children which were largely because of shoddy school construction due to corruption. Had the schools been properly built, most the children would have survived. On top of this the grieving parents’ demands to make people accountable for the inferior construction were suppressed by the government. Ai Weiwei didn’t want this brushed under the carpet and the children forgotten.
Having lived in China and taught school-aged children in very similar surroundings, I can easily grasp more than enough of the horror of the event, and appreciate the anger at the corruption and greed which led to the children’s deaths. While Ai Weiwei’s installation addresses the unnecessary deaths and government white-washing, a 2009 documentary – China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province – does a much, much better job of examining the issues and conveying the real impact of the catastrophe. [See below. Note that the documentary starts at 4:30.]
The difference between Ai Weiwei’s “conceptual” piece, and the documentary, is that the installation is very cerebral, and the movie HURTS! You’d have to be a robot to watch the parents talking about their dead children, while holding large framed photos of them, without aching. I rarely cry, and am more likely to just get angry or indignant about something – I’m sure I’ve gone years on end without shedding a tear – but after re-watching the first several minutes of the film, I’m mopping my eyes.
I suppose I may be more vulnerable to the story because, well, my students looked just like those students, and their parents looked just like those parents, and so did my Chinese friends and coworkers. I can even understand some of the spoken language. But I’m guessing the film is that powerful anyway, and everyone is going to realize how awful it must be to sift through rubble searching for your missing child. And the backpacks? This is what they really look like.
What I’m driving at is that the art form of making installations may not be the most effective way of conveying the reality or scope of a social problem nor the tragedy that results from it. A documentary, whether the techniques involved are “radical” or “innovative” or just plain standard, can do so much more than mute props and a placard. Remembering, 2009 doesn’t include salient details, such as that the local word for the inferior building practices is “tofu construction”.
An installation can’t compete with a documentary in terms of conveying emotion, giving context, sharing details, having an accurate atmosphere, or supplying an abundance of information. In the film you see the parents on a 70 mile march to reach the provincial government, because the regional government isn’t doing anything. They are carrying a banner and holding the large framed pictures of their children. You see them plow through a police blockade, and when the local officials miraculously appear, fearing only losing face, and one pleads with them to not go over his head with, “I will probe completely,” you see a distraught mother come back with, “Probe your mother’s cunt. You certified that building as safe!” You see the stacked bricks that are supposed to be the foundation of a building, but are not fortified with cement or rebar. Artfully arranged shiny objects in a museum just can’t communicate that level of authenticity.
It’s probably not fair to compare an installation to a documentary film, and that’s part of my point. The conventional installation formula Ai Weiwei follows has its genesis in Duchamp’s ready-mades, and its predecessors include minimalist sculptures, and the aestheticization of innocuous objects by Jeff Koons (such as in exhibiting vacuum cleaners). Can the same sort of approach that is used by Koons to fashion fine art baubles for the ultra wealthy be used to as a vehicle to incite serious social change?
I don’t doubt that Ai Weiwei’s concern over refugees or the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake is very real, and he was instrumental in getting the Chinese government to release numbers of students who died in the quake. And even if installation isn’t the most effective means of educating the public about a given topic, his contribution at very least helps keep people’s attention on the issue and prevent it from being swept under the rug. For these reasons I don’t share with the critics I quoted skepticism about his activism, nor think his artistic handling of the refugee crisis has destroyed his career.
These installations strive to impress us with sheer scale, volume, material, and pure minimalist aesthetics, but those qualities have nothing directly to do with the social content the work is intended to be about, and as in the case of the shiny backpacks may give an opposite impression. The content itself is only registered as relevant if the political angle is considered the right one, and taken seriously only if the artist is perceived as a suitable person to make the argument. I’m left a little confused, and pondering less the subject of the activism, than how the art works or doesn’t in achieving it.
Is politics a subject for art, or is art a vehicle for politics? In Ai Weiwei’s hands it’s probably both, but the two approaches seem to be working at cross purposes. At its worse, his art is uninspired rows, stacks, columns or other cliched arrangements of objects, which are supposed to signify an urgent social cause, but which end up being empty props loosely illustrating a one-liner. The connection between the objects and the message is too loose to work in a conventional museum exhibit, and no more intrinsically impressive than a storefront window display. We end up praising Ai Weiwei not for the quality of his art, but for the significance we impart to his political message, which we only take seriously because of his status as a Chinese dissident (who happens to reaffirm the values we already hold).
Find more of my art criticism here.
And see my art here.