Guest post by Elliot J. Reichert.
Ai Weiwei is perhaps one of the most famous—or infamous—living artists. Known internationally for his provocative and politically charged artworks and films, Ai has lived in exile since the lifting of a ban on his travel by the Chinese government in 2015. The Fake Case, a 2013 documentary by Danish filmmaker Andreas Johnsen, takes up the personal, political, and legal challenges the artist faces after being released from an 81-day stint in jail in 2011.
Born in Beijing on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Ai experienced the oppression of the Maoist regime at a young age. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was an outspoken critic of the government and was swept up in an early purge of the Communist party. When Ai was only one, his family was banished to a labor camp in the remote north where they remained for sixteen years until Mao’s death in 1976. Ai left for the United States in 1981, moving between Philadelphia and San Francisco before settling in New York City. He studied art and found himself engrossed in Western modernism and conceptual art, practices that had few parallels since Mao’s propaganda apparatus had saturated Chinese artmaking.
Shortly after returning to Beijing in 1993, Ai performed an early, career-defining work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. As the title describes, Ai acquired a 2,000-year-old clay urn and photographed himself as he dropped it on the ground, smashing it to pieces. The performance shocked and outraged many Chinese, who regard the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) as the pinnacle of early Chinese civilization. Smashing a Han artifact was tantamount to a violent rejection of Chinese tradition. Ai responded to his critics sardonically by saying, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” Indeed, Mao advocated for a widespread cleansing of Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution. By setting Chinese reverence for the Han Dynasty against the teachings of the Communist Party’s founding leader, Ai pointed to the fraught contradictions of China’s cultural and political identity. The performance was inspired by Ai’s experiences in the United States, where he studied Macel Duchamp’s readymades and Rauschenberg’s early experiments with the conceptual limits of art. Rauchenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning, in which the artist erased a pencil drawing by the famous painter Willem de Kooning and signed it as his own work of art, inspired Ai’s work with what he called “cultural readymades.”
Ai’s fame grew steadily, especially in the West, where his conceptual approach to artmaking was more familiar and appealing to audiences. His notoriety put a strain on the Chinese government, which desired greater recognition in the world of contemporary art, but chaffed at Ai’s critical stances against it. In 2005, Ai began blogging on the Chinese social media site Weibo. After four years of posting criticism of the government alongside his musings on art and architecture, the blog was shut down and Ai turned to Twitter. To date, he has tweeted more than 166,000 times.
Ai has made more than twenty documentaries that have become increasingly political since 2008. That year he filmed the citizen investigation of an earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 5,000 people, many of them school children. The investigation uncovered poor oversight of the construction of schools and homes that contributed to the earthquake’s mass causalities. He has also filmed a number of documentaries highlighting the plights of Chinese dissidents and abuses under the Chinese judicial system, including his own experiences with police brutality and his house arrest. In 2011, the local government of Shanghai demolished Ai’s newly constructed studio in an apparent retaliation for his political filmmaking. Shortly thereafter, Ai was detained and sent to prison. The Fake Case picks up after Ai is released.
Ai continues to use his public platform to agitate for social justice. Last year, he installed 14,000 life jackets discarded on the beaches of Lesbos by refugees to the columns of the Berlin’s Konzerthaus concert hall. Ai, who had lived in Berlin since fleeing China in 2015, recently decamped to England, citing the increase in racism and intolerance in Germany in recent years. Just this month, the artist published a scathing New York Times op-ed rebuking China and the United States for their joint complicity in labor exploitation and human rights abuses, writing that “[t]he West offers capital and much-needed technology, while China’s rulers supply a vast, captive, hard-working, low-paid and unprotected labor force. Western politicians, as if trying to justify the unholy collusion, for years argued that rising living standards in China would produce a middle class who would demand freedom and democracy. It is clear by now that that has not happened.” Instead, he argues, liberal democracy itself is at stake.
Ai Weiwei’s lifelong struggles against the oppressive and authoritarian Chinese regime, some of which The Fake Case chronicles, might seem like a world far away from our American democracy. But, as Ai himself warns, liberal values must be defended if they are to survive in a changing world.
Elliot J. Reichert is a curator, critic, and editor. He is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University and Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition. He was formerly Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.