Ai Weiwei : Creativity Is the Power to Act

 

Ai Weiwei, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," 1995. Middle view of a triptych of gelatin silver prints, each print 49 5/8” x 39 1/4”. (Photo courtesy dailyserving.com)

 

Ai Weiwei, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," 1995. Last view of a triptych of gelatin silver prints, each print 49 5/8” x 39 1/4”. (Photo courtesy dailyserving.com)

 

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.

 

In Ai Weiwei's "first large-scale solo exhibition to be held anywhere in the ethnic Chinese world," Taipei Fine Arts Museum's 'Ai Weiwei absent' was a critical success. The highlight was the artist's "Forever Bicycles" installation, which was made specifically for this exhibition out of 1,200 bicycle units. (Photo courtesy thisiscolossol.com)

 

Herzog and DeMeuron’s Olympic Stadium, fondly referred to by some as the “Bird’s Nest,” is a feat of engineering, an aesthetic marvel. Ai Weiwei served as a consultant on the project. (Photo courtesy Inhabitat.com)

 

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei holds some porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation at The Tate Modern in London on October 11, 2010. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images courtesy The Asia Society)

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.

Ai Weiwei with musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou in the elevator when taken in custody by the police, Sichuan, China, August 2009 (Photo courtesy Ai Weiwei and Christine König Galerie)

 

One thousand and one antique Chinese chairs for the 1,001 Chinese visitors Ai Weiwei brought to Kassel, Germany, for Documenta 12 (2007) as part of his project, "Fairytale." (Photo Courtesy Ai Weiwei via pbs.org)

 

Artist Cpak Ming took a series of photographs of flash stencils around Hong Kong after the arrest of Ai Weiwei. The photographer received a firm warning from the Chinese government after photographing this piece of flash graffiti on the side of the People’s Liberation Army barracks in Admiralty, Hong Kong. Next to Ai's Weiwei's face are the words: "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" (Photo by Cpak Ming courtesy mymodernmet.com)

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.”

Ai Weiwei, "Grapes," 2007. Tieli wood (nine Qing Dynasty stools ) 31" x 54" x 63" (Photo courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

 

Ai Weiwei, Ai Qing Memorial, 2002, Jinhua Ai Qing Cultural Park, Jinhua, Zhejiang (Photo courtesy of the artist © Ai Weiwei via Art21)

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 Weiwei, Williamsburg, Brooklyn 1983 (Photo by Ai Weiwei courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre and Chambers Fine Art)

 

Another view of Ai Weiwei's "Forever Bicycles"

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.”

 

Ai Weiwei's blog book

 

 

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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.

 

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

14 Comments

  1. Anita March 11, 2012 at 9:32 am

    The right questions he mentions in order to break through the saftey net of normal are the same for every pursuit in life, such as relationships (one of the most trying of expressive arts). Weiwei is inspiring! I like how he said his blog was like his drawing…

    Thank you for posting this, Michelle. Gwarlingo just might be my favorite blog ever.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Thanks for your comment, Anita. I agree with you that “breaking through the safety net of normal” is a challenge in every area of life. As you say, asking the right questions is essential regardless of what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s so easy to live on auto-pilot both in our personal lives and in our creative work. We don’t take enough time to step back and obtain the bird’s eye view. We too rarely ask those important “WHY” questions. As a result, we get stuck in predictable ruts and don’t take the risks that are essential for our own happiness and development.

      We’re busy and operating on auto pilot is always simpler, but I think the real reason we fail to fight the status quo is fear. I love what Ai says on the subject: “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?”

      When our bodies perceive a threat, our natural is instinct is “flight or fight.” Learning to overcome and make peace with this resistance is a key to working more deeply as artists, I believe, and also a key to living more fully in other areas of our lives. As Sol LeWitt said in his marvelous letter to Eva Hesse, “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!”

  2. Anna Dibble March 11, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Wow. This is great. I’ve read and seen so many scraps of writing, images, newspaper articles (and a couple of years ago I think there was a New Yorker article) about Ai Weiwei, and have admired him from afar, but this is the first time I’ve read his writing. Will get a copy of his blog. Thanks so much for posting it, and also for your usual fine thoughts. Reading this post, it struck me that one of the problems in the world is that people don’t seem to actually THINK as much as they once did. There are so many good things about the latest technology, but part of its dark side is it – on the whole – tends to take the place of thinking. Or even erase thought. So important to go on thinking. And to provoke others to go on thinking too.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 11, 2012 at 11:58 am

      I was in London last year when Ai Weiwei was under arrest and missing. I picked up a copy of Ai Weiwei Speaks: with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Tate Modern. I couldn’t put the book down as I rode the tube, traveled by train, etc. I was particularly captivated by the idea of a blog as part an artistic practice–as a way of drawing or sketching. The book can be repetitive at times since it’s a collection of interviews with the same person over time, but it is a great introduction to Ai’s holistic philosophy about art. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the blog book as much without this introduction to Ai’s work.

      Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 is much denser and the kind of book that is easy to dip in and out of. Ai delves into politics, art, philosophy, and other subjects. Ai didn’t even know how to type when he started his blog, and he says that he looked at the forum as an opportunity to hone his writing skills. He’s not the most concise of writers, but I enjoy the way he circles around a subject in his own unique voice. It’s a real glimpse into Ai’s artistic practice. He doesn’t separate life from art. For Ai, life and art are a connected whole.

  3. Sandra March 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

    It’s always good to recharge-I love your posts-It’s refreshing to see something that I’ve never seen before.

  4. Kathryn March 11, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Morning Michelle. Enjoyed reading this. One thing, though. The idea that virtual reality is as important as reality troubles me. I do see that technology connects and gives those previously without access a necessary and deserved reach. But i feel that technology is also removing us from experience, from nature, and from each other. Too often i fear that simulations are confused with reality, and we thinking mammals do not touch or rub up against actual experience enough. A face against a screen is a world away from what that screen holds. Or is it? Jeanette Winterson, someone i not only believe but respect, wrote that perhaps all that is real are shadow puppets on the wall. What to do, ey? 🙂 Any thoughts? Hope you’ll be back in fighting form very soon, Michelle.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Kathryn and Anna,
      I’m so glad you both zeroed in on the technology question. It’s a topic that I’m eager to discuss more on Gwarlingo because I believe it’s THE question we’re all struggling with right now. I know artists at both extremes of the spectrum–a writer who is completely offline with no email, no cell phone, no computer, etc. and one artist whose smart phone is permanently attached to his body!

      I was a bit of a Luddite myself until recently. I only joined Facebook and Twitter recently, and I still don’t own a smartphone. Like most people I find email to be a blessing and a curse.

      Like Ai, the possibilities of technology excite me. Just look at recent events in Egypt, Libya, and Russia. The Chinese government has erected “The Great Firewall,” but hackers and other creative individuals are busy finding ways to the thwart the suppression of free speech. In this way, the Internet is fulfilling many of the hopes of the idealistic individuals who created it. I’m sure that Ai’s enthusiasm for technology is partly a result of living in an oppressed society with no free speech.

      But even for those of us living in the West, technology has eroded the power of the status quo. Technology allows us to bypass gatekeepers, to speak directly to one another, and to put our work out in the world. I know a filmmaker who has equipped workers in Africa with cameras so they can document certain atrocities there. This is an example of technology being put to good use. ProPublica is another organization using technology to good effect. And then there is a writer like Colson Whitehead, who says that Twitter gives him a sense of connection and community when he’s alone all day in his apartment writing. This is the positive side.

      But then there’s the dark underbelly…we have forgotten how to have real conversations about deep subjects. We forget to go outside. We throw away our valuable time perusing celebrity gossip or photos of cute baby animals (not that I have anything against cute baby animals). There is a reason so many writers have installed FREEDOM on their computers. We’ve turned into infoholics. We’re addicted to screens, and it is hurting our attention spans and disconnecting us from “the real world,” as you pointed out. Virtual reality is no substitute for walking in the woods, listening to music, or having a long talk with a friend over dinner.

      I don’t have the answers, but I do think it’s key to assess our habits and to make deliberate choices about technology. We should control it, instead of it controlling us. My friend William Powers wrote a wonderful book called Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, which I plan to discuss in the near future on Gwarlingo.

      Bill and his family have made the decision to stay offline every weekend. They “unplug” on Friday night and stay offline until Monday morning. Monday through Friday, you’ll find Bill on Twitter, Facebook, appearing on TV, etc., but he has made the deliberate decision to unplug on weekends. His friends and colleagues know that he’s offline on weekends, so no one expects him to respond to emails, etc. on a Saturday. He has set the expectation himself, instead of letting others do this for him. It’s a great example of finding balance.

      You might also be interested in this new post on Zen Habits about beating information addiction.

      I have so much to say on this topic, but should save it for future posts. I hope we can delve into the subject more in the coming weeks. It is a rich area for discussion.

      To tweet, or not to tweet: that is the question.

  5. Anna Dibble March 11, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Kathryn – agree with you – and often think about the irony in the fact we can now connect with each other all over the world so instantly now, and yet, as you say, technology is also disconnecting us from each other at almost an equally fast rate. I do however think that, as a species, we are going to continue to evolve away from actual experience and embrace simulation more and more. This is sad for those of us of a certain age, but for younger people I think simulation is definitely already the new ‘reality’. I still have hope that ‘our’ reality will continue to re- emerge – will continue to be needed. And maybe there will even be a rebellion and a turning back at some point.

    • Kathryn March 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      And I agree with you, Anna. I learned long division in school before the no-brainer calculator became the answer to even the most basic number question. I can’t remember how to do long division, and i know that those neglected stairs in my brain are in disrepair. And there is a room i can’t go to anymore. I’m just talking about a basic left-brained activity, but just imagine all the not-thinking we’re doing. Imagine how many lost paths, how many locked rooms. Those are all possibilities. And as you said, the now-young are oblivious to their loss. But things will turn in their time. It is our nature to need to know.

      Thanks for your generous response, Michelle. Looking forward to your technology posts…

  6. Anna Dibble March 11, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Yes, Michelle. Glad you are going to keep focus on The subject of our time. Will be good to hear a lot of different takes on the various tentacles of this.

    I also hope we can keep going from time to time with the subject of the difficulties that those of us who focus our lives on creative work have with the necessity to also make a living in our particular society – you dealt with it in a wonderful post a couple of months ago. Am not sure how the subject would manifest itself in more exploration/discussion, but there must be ways of doing this. It’s such a part of our daily lives. As is the ‘technology question’.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks for this feedback, Anna. I always like to know what subjects are on readers’ minds.

      The topic of making a living while being an artist is a vexing one, and it’s certainly an issue I’ve struggled with myself. Judging by the conversations I’ve had with artists over the years and the articles that have have generated the most comment Gwarlingo, I would say that the three pressing subjects on many people’s minds (especially artists) are technology, money, and fear. How do we use technology wisely without it taking over our lives? How do we earn a living as artists without sacrificing the valuable time and energy we need to create new work? And how do we overcome the discomfort of trying new things and changing old patterns? Does this ring true to you?

      I’d love to discuss these subjects further on Gwarlingo. I’ll give this more thought in the coming week. Thanks for nudge. I promise to include more posts on money in the near future!

  7. Anna Dibble March 12, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Yep. Technology, Money, and Fear. So nice to have someone distill it! And these issues are all interconnected as well – or at least they can be, some of the time.

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