This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –
A diorama is a miniature model of something, often enclosed in a box. Ai WeiWei’s S.A.C.R.E.D comprises six such boxes, with peep holes to see what’s inside – in this instance, scenes from his 2011 detention by the Chinese government, when two soldiers stood guard at a distance of 80cm from him, round the clock, for 81 days.
It’s the first Saturday afternoon of the 58-year-old artist’s huge retrospective at London’s Royal Academy and inevitably it feels as mobbed as the street outside in Piccadilly. There is a particular clamour, however, to see Ai’s genitals – his manhood, his todger. In one of the boxes the guards are watching him take a shower. The other hot ticket is a glimpse of him seated on the can.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain shocked the world with the idea that art could take any form an artist chose to give it. His “readymade” in that work was a urinal. Almost a century later, Ai has declared his readymades are the Chinese government and Chinese history. “I can piss with [them]”, he said in a recent interview, injecting, if nothing else, new meaning into the term “piss artist”. One, perhaps, who raises a finger at the one-party state then builds into his art the party’s over-reaction – in which it manages somehow to piss over its own shoes. Or something of the sort.
My companion and I are not completely ignorant: we do know that Ai is the Most Famous Artist in the World – despite, or perhaps because of, being imprisoned, hounded, silenced, having his studio flattened, his bank accounts frozen and his passport taken. But we definitely know a bit less about his art. Still, we opt not to wear headsets, partly because this will cost us more. This means missing out on a commentary which, judging from the expressions on our headsetted counterparts’ faces, affords a fuller grasp of Ai’s brilliance.
Luckily his work is nicely signposted for the weekend driver anyway. For a start, the ubiquity of 2D or 3D maps of the country leaves little room for doubt that Ai’s primary subject matter is China itself – even where the maps demand explanatory notes. The one in Fragments, for example, a sculpture assembled from architectural salvage and items of Ming and Qing era furniture, only shapes up if viewed from above, a physical impossibility in most gallery settings. According to the accompanying text: “The different geographic and ethnographic identities of the country are rendered immaterial and China is presented as a skeleton [suggesting] an inherent fragility that can be seen as a commentary on the concept of ‘One China’.” Do keep up at the back of the class.
Equally Delphic is He Xie, in which hundreds of porcelain crabs cluster in a corner. It’s a pun that needs some explaining – “he xie”, we learn, refers to river crabs but is also a homonym for “harmonious”, and has been adopted on the Chinese internet to refer to censorship. When Ai realised in 2010 that the new studio he’d had built in Shanghai was marked for demolition before he’d even moved in, he ordered a feast of crabs to commemorate both the building’s completion and its imminent destruction. A Dadaist triumph over the government’s own inadvertently Dadaist act is how He Xie is presented. Considered in itself, it shares with a lot of pop art the feeling of a joke waiting for a punchline.
Examples of Ai’s own creative destruction abound. In common with his re-configurations of reclaimed timbers, his Han dynasty vases dipped in industrial paint and a photographic triptych of him deliberately dropping a similarly antique urn are intended as a comment on the destruction of China’s past begun during the Cultural Revolution. Just as frequently, he reminds us of the Communist Party’s totalitarianism, its fear of losing power and its deathless crisis of legitimacy. Among a number of functional objects fashioned from lavish materials is a surveillance camera carved in marble. Clever? No. Subtle? No. Important? Sure.
It seems obvious that one reason the merits of Ai’s art are so often a secondary consideration is that his personal circumstances and their political dimension loom so large in it. Insofar as it asserts, again and again, that art matters in a society governed by paranoid fools, it’s in that political context that his own work does. There’s shining a little light into the darkness and there’s emblazoning revelations in neon. All too often Ai chooses the latter route to people’s responses, but striving to see past the neon may be to miss the point. And besides, people are pissing back there.