Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 has been good company the past few days. Between 2006 and 2009, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei used his blog as a daily notebook where he posted thousands of photos, documented his artistic practice and personal life, wrote about art and architecture, and turned out a steady stream of scathing social commentary. Over 100,000 people visited the blog on a daily basis until the Chinese government shut Ai’s site down in 2009.
Ai Weiwei is a Renaissance man of sorts, with a broad range of interests. He is a writer, architect, sculptor, curator, poet, critic, publisher, and photographer. In the West, he is probably best known for his spectacular installation Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The work consisted of one hundred million porcelain “seeds,” each individually hand-painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans, and scattered over a large area of Turbine Hall.
Ai is also a self-taught architect and proponent of authentic, simple design. He has worked on over 70 architectural projects total, including a notable collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron , which resulted in the memorable “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics
Recently, Ai has been making headlines for other reasons. On April 3, 2011, the artist was arrested at Peking Airport just before catching a flight to Hong Kong. Around 50 police officers searched Ai’s studio and took away laptops and hard drives. Police also detained eight staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. The arrest sparked major protests around the world. On 22 June 2011, the Chinese authorities released him on bail after close to three months’ detention on charges of tax evasion. He is prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission for one year.
In his art practice, Ai has actively embraced technology. “I think the Internet and information era is the greatest period mankind has encountered,” Ai told Hans Ulrich Obrist in the book Ai Weiwei Speaks. “Thanks to this period, humans finally have the opportunity to become independent, to acquire information and communicate independently…I think that art won’t have too grand or too much of a future if it fails to connect with today’s lifestyles and technologies.”
For Ai, virtual reality is as important as reality itself. He believes that all art is social in its way and that technology can bolster the power and reach of art, particularly in oppressed societies. Ai’s first blog post was one sentence: “You need a purpose to express yourself, but that expression is its own purpose.”
In 2007 Ai used his blog to create a compelling work titled Fairytale. Using the internet, he recruited 1,001 Chinese people who had never been to Europe to wander around the town of Kassel Germany during Documenta. As someone who spent 12 years in New York City, Ai understood the power of travel and hoped Fairytale would change the lives of those 1,001 individuals who made the trip to Europe.
Ai viewed his blog as an essential extension of his own art practice. “The blog is like my drawing,” he told Obrist. “Whatever I say there could be seen as part of my work. It gives the most information: it shows my complete surroundings.” As Obrist has observed, “Blogging produces reality rather than simply representing it.” Ai completed over 2,700 posts before the Chinese government shut down his site.
Lee Ambrozy has assembled and translated a marvelous selection of Ai’s writings for Ai Weiwei’s Blog. There are a number of compelling pieces, including one piece titled “Who Are You?”
Ai begins his post by discussing style, choice, and the language of design. He says that we have two choices when it comes to how we respond to the world around us. We can attempt to find our place with the goal of finding harmony, or we can simply announce ourselves. We can either say, “‘I am you, you and I are the same,’” or “”I am myself, I am different from all of you.’” As Ai points out, these self-definitions are influenced by politics, culture, economics, etc.
“The things you create—including their limitations—are all embodied through your state of existence,” Ai writes.
“I seek to eliminate those limitations through various alterations, or to make them more obvious; this is entirely possible, and is also another form of expression. I do not have a clear style, nor would I limit myself to popular ones. Life is more exuberant, more meaningful than any style imaginable.”
The rest of Ai’s piece, which is a meditation on design and its failure to ask the right questions, is worth quoting in its entirety:
“People today expect to gain status, acceptance, or pleasure from the particular number of square meters in their homes or some set of fixed standards, a life of simply filling in the blanks. The game is so simple, and it’s not something that everyone is prepared to accept…It’s hard for an individual to state his or her mind frankly, or to smile, or to make contact with someone else, or to observe a thing plainly. These might sound easy, but that are not so easily executed.
Innocence and a lack of desire make people wise. Once you perceive a thing straightforwardly, with a clear mind and no obstacles, you will discover that your resources are inexhaustible. This is because your heart is connected to and in harmony with the order of the universe.
This issue is obvious: if you forget your basic philosophy and ethics, design becomes a foundationless activity. In truth, design is touching upon this question every second, that is, how much will I take, and how much will you give? Do I give and take in equal measure? A majority of the time, a person’s driving motivation is only to take, or to convey, but what nature of substructure is assisting this conveyance? This is ambiguous, and turns into a cry of neither joy nor pain. You may see at one glance the depth of this person’s torment. Joyful people are also easy to recognize, but what so often leaves us perplexed is the counterbalance that comes after the cry. It stand in contradiction to the system, and to logic.
When people relinquish their intentions, they possess the utmost wisdom, because in the moments when you are not articulating yourself you appear immeasurably large, you become a part of nature. When you act for yourself, you are merely presenting yourself, and in comparison with nature you are infinitely small. This logic is very plain. However, when we forget or abandon ourselves, we can become immeasurably great. Design may appear to be diversiform; however, very little of its any good. True quality, in the form of things that can affect humans on a spirit level, is very rare. Merely thinking something is a good idea may influence only our behavior, but not our minds. It may, for example, offer greater speed or convenience, but what will you do in light of such advantages? And why do we require such convenience or speed? These are important questions, but rarely do designers ask questions at this level. They think, “I need to decorate this wall,” or “This square stool should be round.”—but what are they ornamenting? Our considerations tend to stop at a certain level, on a level that provides a sense of security. How many people willingly locate themselves in a state of insecurity?
No cup can compare to drinking water from your own two hands, and it’s been a long time since we took a drink of water without having to twist off a cap—but wasn’t it wisdom that begat these circumstances? Amid our pursuit of profits and manufacturing possibilities, we’ve placed ourselves on the road to extinction. Simple lifestyle is one way of allowing to find a path to Eden, so why do you want to develop so fast? Will you gain more at such speeds? I find both ideas very attractive, and am constantly subject to their temptation.”
Ai is right–too often we ask the wrong questions. We are too quick to make assumptions and as a result spend a lot of time and energy solving the wrong problems. Real innovation and change only come when we step outside of familiar patterns, both our own and those of the larger culture. How can an artist expect to make her best work if she is operating on autopilot? The act of questioning the status quo is a healthy impulse. This is the aspiration to be different that Ai refers to.
But I would argue that being different and outside of the popular culture doesn’t necessarily mean we are separate and isolated from the larger world. Quite the contrary. Simplicity, silence, and even uncertainty spur meaningful change. They can allow for greater connection, and can even motivate us to work more deeply as artists.
As Ai writes, “Creativity is the power to act.” It’s the power “to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.”
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Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 was edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy and is published by The MIT Press. Above passages from Ai Weiwei’s blog post “Who Are You?” were partly translated by Eric Abrahamsen.