I didn’t expect a publication that has been touted as one of the “Best Art Books of 2012” to stand just six inches tall and contain only two photographs. But as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new book Weiwei-isms proves, small can be powerful.
“Chairman Mao was the first in the world to use Twitter,” says Ai. “All his quotations are within 140 words.”
Weiwei-isms, published by Princeton University Press and designed by Pamela Schnitter with art direction by Maria Lindenfeldar, is brilliantly executed, and the high-quality paper and sewn binding are a pleasure to leaf through.
Ai’s reference to Mao is important, for his book cleverly satirizes the Chairman’s infamous book of quotations, ironically referred to as the Little Red Book in the West.
Like Weiwei-isms, Mao’s book of quotations was also pocket-sized for easy reading. The Little Red Book is reportedly one of the most printed books in history and at one point “was essentially an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, to read, and to carry it at all times during the latter half of Mao’s rule, especially during the Cultural Revolution.”
According to Wikipedia, “studying the book was not only required in schools, but was also a standard practice in the workplace as well. All units, in the industrial, commercial, agricultural, civil service, and military sectors, organized group sessions for the entire workforce to study the book during working hours.” The small, red volume frequently appeared in propaganda posters from the period, some of which I’ve collected here…
It is impossible to fully grasp the political punch of Weiwei-isms without some knowledge of Mao’s own publication. By creating his own little black book of quotations, Ai is drawing a bold line in the sand and daring his government to cross it.
And that is exactly what the Chinese government did in April of 2011 when police arrested Ai at the Beijing airport and held him in an undisclosed location for 81 days without filing official charges.
Friends and family were desperate for news. The U.S. and E.U. protested his detention and supporters around the world responded with a Free Ai Weiwei campaign that included protests in Hong Kong, Germany, and Taiwan, a Release Ai Weiwei sign atop the Tate Modern, and a 24-hour silent protest at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where individuals sat in two Chinese chairs for one-hour periods in collective protest. Creative Time’s “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” asked artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.”
When Ai finally was released from jail, he emerged from captivity thinner and visibly shaken. He was sentenced to house arrest and prohibited from leaving Beijing for a year.
“The 81 days of detention were a nightmare,” Ai says in Weiwei-isms. “I am not unique; it happened to many people in China. Conditions were extreme, created by a system that thinks it is above the law and has become a kind of monstrous machine. There were so many moments when I felt desperate and hopeless. But still, the next morning, I heard the birds singing.”
It is uncommon for a visual artist to privilege words over images, but that is precisely what Ai has done again and again over the course of his career. In a culture where free-speech is suppressed, direct discourse has exceptional value—a value that Western society has largely forgotten in this age of political hyperbole, Internet blather, and ad speak.
It is one thing to create art that skirts government censors through subtlety and ambiguity (as artists have done in repressed societies for centuries), and quite another to wear your politics on your sleeve (or your Twitter feed, in this case). As Ai discovered, such boldness can quickly get you thrown into prison, or worse.
For Ai, “this struggle is a ‘war of words,’” says editor Larry Warsh in his introduction to Weiwei-isms, “and his own words—spoken, written, or tweeted—are ‘like a bullet out of the gun,’” “Ai Weiwei repeatedly points out, and centuries of history attest, human rights and freedom of expression are not set by anyone’s agenda. They are inalienable rights, central to what makes us human.”
Ai has placed emphasis on the written word before with his Red Flag books, a series comprised of three volumes–the Black Cover Book, the White Cover Book, and the Gray Cover Book. “I tried to make a document or archive for what was going on [in contemporary art],” Ai told Karen Smith, “and at the same time to promote a conceptual base for the art, rather than just art on canvas on easels. So I forced artists to write a concept, to explain what is behind their activity.”
In 2008 Ai helped another Chinese artist collect the names of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake. Ai blamed the high number of deaths and subsequent government coverup on shoddy “tofu construction.” By May 12, 2009, the first anniversary of the quake, Ai and volunteers had collected 5,385 names. The simple act of posting the names of the dead on his office wall and on his blog was a profound artistic and political statement. (Two and a half weeks later, the blog was shut down by Chinese authorities.)
Both Ai’s Twitter feed and censored blog (which I have written about before) are works of art in their own right. And as Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes in the Independent, “Ai is not only a master of generating self-publicity online but also of the short, sweet quote. At his best he can use Twitter in a way that a Japanese poet might use a haiku: harnessing the compactness of the form to his advantage. ‘During the days in detention, I thought most about the moon,’ posted Ai in 2011. Such pared-down lyricism makes his language a pleasure to read.” After all, this is the land of Confucius and Lao Tzu.
One of the things I value most about Ai’s work is that he doesn’t limit himself to one particular medium. “Everything is art,” Ai says. “Everything is politics.”
Ai lives his art, as seen in Alison Klayman’s recent documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. After Ai is beaten by police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow earthquake investigator, he is diagnosed with a cerebral hemorage and must undergo emergency brain surgery.
Ai photographs his hospital experience and later, he and his assistants methodically go from police station to police station filing complaints about the attack, but getting nowhere. The act of confronting Chinese bureaucracy and injustice directly and documenting the result is the kind of art Franz Kafka could appreciate.
“I want to prove that the system is not working,” argues Ai. “You can’t simply say that the system is not working. You have to work through it.”
Whether Ai is dining with Twitter followers at a restaurant, collecting names of earthquake victims, or watching the watchers by training his camera on the government’s cameras, he considers each of these everyday actions art. “Creativity is part of human nature,” says Ai. “It can only be untaught.”
As his book of quotes makes clear, “action” is the critical component of Ai’s artistic practice.
“I don’t really care that much about if I want to be more successful or less successful in art,” says Ai, “because I never think life and art should be separate. What’s life if you don’t have conversation and joy and anger?”
Weiwei-isms is organized into six themes: Freedom of Expression; Art and Activism; Government, Power, and Making Moral Choices; Digital World; History, Historical Moment, and the Future; and Personal Reflections. The little black book is a direct snub to the Chinese government and represents everything Mao’s Little Red Book does not: individuality, social change, the basic human right of freedom speech. This is a big burden for a tiny 120-page book to carry, and yet it does the job remarkably well.
The mere act of compiling Ai’s statements into a book that mocks Mao’s legacy is a radical gesture. And I would go so far as to say that the act of purchasing and sharing this book is a small show of support for human rights. Of course, Chinese citizens are the ones who would benefit most from Weiwei-isms, and they will not have easy access to this publication—an injustice we would do well to keep in mind.
In the West we have become indifferent to free speech. We have forgotten that words have the power to change minds and incite action. But totalitarian governments and religious fundamentalists know better. They ban books and censor not because they are crazy or ignorant, but because they comprehend reality: the ability to speak our own truth is the most potent and human act of all.
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