Some thoughts on Ai Weiwei

I published some thoughts here on the artist/activist Ai Weiwei and the circus that surrounds him.

…one of the problems with Ai’s garrulousness (and the insatiable demand of western media and assorted intellectuals and hangers on to get their moment of reflected glory), is that everything merges together—Ai’s different sayings, the same sayings at different times, your memory of the same sayings in a different context or different sayings in the same context…

… I’m no art critic, but a lot of what I’ve seen of Ai’s strikes me as clever and interesting. I don’t always agree with his confrontational and crude modus operandi, but there is no doubting his pugnacity or the strength of his convictions. A lot of what he says about the Party and the country’s political system is undeniably accurate. He is a very important intellectual and activist.

However, the Ai brand, the marketing machine, the construction of Ai as a uniquely heroic individual in the midst of unrelenting Communist beastliness is a source of ambivalence. This is a story about western intellectuals and western projections, but Ai is naturally complicit in it, and with good reason: to a great extent his freedom depends on his celebrity and influence outside of China. At this point it is impossible to separate Ai from the western filmmakers, journalists, critics, curators and collectors, academics and general intellectual flotsam and jetsam that turn up at his studio compound in Caochangdi. Ai has many worthwhile things to say and it isn’t his fault that devotees and dandies relay his every word. But it does dilute his message.

Weiwei-isms is a good example. Presumably the editor had free rein to choose whatever he liked from Ai’s substantial oeuvre (even when limited to 2008-2012), but the book is full of tired  banalities (“everything is art, everything is politics”, “a small act is worth a million thoughts”), recycled moral platitudes (“the world won’t change if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility”) and complex issues reduced to truisms (“China has not established the rule of law and thus there is no justice”, “the internet is uncontrollable [and thus] freedom will win”).

Perhaps it is my own Ai-fatigue (I remember when reading his old Sina blog was a thrilling, almost illicit, experience). Or maybe Ai himself has run out of steam: his underlying message, though pursued with more courage and conviction than I could ever muster, is a simple endorsement of individual freedoms in the face of a controlling regime, and there is a finite number of ways to express that. When you’re asked the same question time and time again, you naturally risk repeating yourself. Understandably, Ai has developed habits of expression. But the interviews and films and feature stories don’t let up…