CAMBRIDGE, England — Why is it so tough to jot down about Ai Weiwei? I start to find the reply as I stand a number of ft away from him at a press convention of types in Cambridge, England. Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard, the place a brand new exhibition, Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt, is being staged, is placing a number of inquiries to him. It was to be a short affair, that was made clear. We might not be detaining him for too lengthy. In spite of everything, he had artwork to make, errands to run, a life to reside, lunch to eat. Ai himself is sitting in a chair, together with his legs drawn again. He’s carrying canvas footwear. He’s dressed completely in black.
My eyes had strayed right down to the footwear faute de mieux. The actual fact is that he had been very tough to listen to, and, if the reality had been advised, it was not likely a press convention in any respect. The questions had been soft-ball. The final was a moderately emotional one from a journalist, and had largely consisted of thanks — from us all maybe? Why not? — for being himself: a luminary, an activist, a person who speaks reality to energy. Ai, being a courteous interlocutor, had returned her thanks. In brief, nobody was being referred to as to account. It was an train in permitting us to be within the presence of Ai Weiwei, and lots of had eagerly answered that decision. The ambiance of awestruck reverence was nearly suffocating. Maybe Ai was untouchable. If that’s the case, the place had been we left when judging his new artwork? And, if that’s the case, is that not a preposterous state of affairs for any critic to be in?
Andrew Nairne was particularly happy to have the ability to declare a valuable a part of Ai. He even referred to as him a neighborhood artist. That is true partially, after all. Ai has been in Cambridge since 2018. Cambridge was a great place to teach his son, and so he lives there — not less than a part of the time, with that son, his two cats, and his girlfriend. However does he not additionally reside, not less than a part of the time, in Portugal? And did he not as soon as reside in Berlin, the place he had a really massive studio certainly? And was he not as soon as additionally in New York, for a bit greater than a decade, residing as an undocumented immigrant, savoring the liberty of Reagan’s America, studying the thrill of with the ability to snap, fairly casually and off the cuff, with a small, handheld digicam, having fun with the valuable freedoms of not being snooped on? And likewise studying what it is perhaps wish to work as a training artist, from the likes of Duchamp, Warhol, and Jasper Johns?
Within the taxi again to the station, after all of the razmatazz is over and finished, I throw out a query to the publicist who’s sitting behind me. Do you suppose he nonetheless feels below menace? There have to be paranoia, she replies. How may there not be, given all that he has suffered?
That’s the crux of the matter, after all. Ai has suffered an awesome deal for his artwork. As did his poet-father earlier than him, who was banished to the countryside and compelled to do meaningless toil, and to bow his head in disgrace each night, for being nothing aside from who he was. And he had been accompanied to that godforsaken, barren place by his son, who had been a witness to all his father’s humiliations.
Years later, these years in New York got here to an abrupt finish. His father was sick. He wanted his son again in China. What else drew him again? The Tiananmen Sq. protests and bloodbath of 1989. That was a turning level. He needed to keep, to register a protest. The best way to do it although?
The remainder of his story in China, at first as an underground agitator of types, is pretty well-known. It doesn’t finish properly, after all. He helps to design the Wasp’s Nest stadium, and later is infuriated by how the CCP coopts it, utilizing it as a platform for propaganda. In 2011, as he tries to depart the nation, he’s arrested. His passport is taken from him, and he spends 81 days in secret detention. He’s refused the best to journey for 4 years. His studio in Shanghai is demolished. He leaves. He makes a house in Europe. And now he’s a person who appears to reside each someplace and nowhere, a type of drifting sage, a person recognized, above all issues else, for his position as a conscience.
However what kind of work does he make? The actual fact is that his trajectory as a maker is much less clear than his persona as one thing of a hero of our occasions. And that may be a drawback. It makes it harder to guage his work.
A lot of the present will not be work by Ai Weiwei in any respect. It’s a lesson in encouraging his viewers to consider the character of faking and copying, and it pivots round a gaggle of 14 Chinese language antiquities that Ai thought he had purchased from Cheffin’s, an public sale home in Cambridge, comparatively just lately, and which are actually on show in one of many two downstairs galleries.
Thought he had purchased antiquities? Sure, exactly. The problem is that some weren’t antiquities in any respect; they had been copies. And a part of the rationale Ai has displayed them right here is to remind us that the Chinese language don’t subscribe to the identical concept of the genuine object because the West. There could be dangerous copies made on the market within the museum store, and excellent copies that may be thought to be equal to the unique. This may trigger large issues, even in China. Within the final 5 years, in keeping with a dialog reported within the present’s catalogue, a museum has opened in China each few days. A minimum of three of them have subsequently closed as a result of a lot of the works had been forgeries.
These ideas are swirling round my head after I stroll into the second of the exhibition’s galleries. This gallery comprises objects authored by Ai himself. I select that phrase “authored” with some care as a result of these works haven’t essentially been made by him. He has conceived them. You may say that they’re conceptual artworks, extra akin to Duchampian readymades than the rest — although these are readymades with a twist or two. Many are fabricated from valuable supplies — jade, for example — and will fairly legitimately be described as good examples of the craftsman’s artwork.
Think about a set of jade handcuffs, for instance. Did Ai Weiwei make them? No, nearly actually not. As he remarked on the press convention, when talking of the proficient craftsmen who work for him, “I all the time need to give them harder work to do.” These are jade replicas of the very handcuffs that shackled him, they usually should certainly have been very tough to make. They’re two issues directly: a painful fragment of autobiography and a reminder of a state’s repressive actions. That is the issue, although: the truth that they’re so immediately associated to the artist’s personal backstory makes it tough to guage them as artworks. That acquainted backstory, along with the information that these evils have been perpetrated by a one-party state whose actions a lot of the world has agreed to abhor, block our path. He’s an excessive amount of of a hero activist; he’s an excessive amount of an enemy of our favourite enemy, communist China. Is it additionally not a contact vainglorious on the a part of the artist to boost up these handcuffs on this approach?
Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt continues at Kettle’s Yard (College of Cambridge, Citadel Road, Cambridge, England) by June 19. The exhibition was devised by Ai Weiwei and curated by Elizabeth Brown, Man Haywood, and Andrew Nairne.