Ai Weiwei

Last night I watched “Ai Weiwei Never Sorry”*, a remarkable documentary about an even more remarkable man. His art incorporates photography but, then, it incorporates just about everything else as well.

I was struck very early in the film that many of the things he said about art echoed the ideas of Henri Cartier Bresson. Two artists from diametrically opposed cultures, social back grounds, times and places.

Ai Weiwei talks of the simplicity of his ideas, a theme that Cartier Bresson often returns to in his writings, HCB says It is by “economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.** Ai WeiWei’s monumental work “Sunflower Seeds” exemplifies the simple approach, a startling 100 million porcelain “seeds” all hand made and hand painted and spread over a football pitch of a space at the Tate Modern in 2010/11. The message that each seed from a distance looks the same but close up is unique, an individual, and how the individual relates to the mass is a simple idea and a simple message about China. Obviously there are many other levels to this work, perhaps the choice of porcelain was important given China’s long standing love affair with this medium, perhaps there are messages about products made in China. The sun was the emblem of Mao Zedong, the seeds the people of China. Sunflower seeds were once the most important staple diet of poor Chinese. Layer upon layer but the basic premise is simple. This is part of the beauty of his work.

Ai WeiWei is, in his own words, engaged in a game of chess through his art. “I am a chess player…I make a move when they do…Now I am waiting for my opponent to make the next move.” In the greatest tradition of art he is trying to change his society through activist art. The dividing line between political act and artistic expression is blurred beyond identification. Were the names of the dead school children listed on his office wall art ? They were a simply made, strong emotional statement that communicated directly with the viewer. A statement that transcended the language in which they were written in as few people outside of china other than people of chinese heritage could read a single name. Calling it art or not art probably trivialises what we are looking at, the names of thousands of children who died needlessly. Children in a single child society who, as Ai Weiwei tells us, were the product of total and dedicated investment by their parents. Not just one only child but over 4,000 only children.

The most creative and moving piece on display was his mural of a dead child’s name constructed from student’s knapsacks and inspired by the photographs of knapsacks after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Another link to Cartier Bresson was the idea of a camera as a diary. Cartier Bresson saw the camera as sketchbook. Ai Weiwei sees it as a diary and his portal to twitter, banned in mainline China, where he maintains a running commentary on his activism and his art. He uses moving and still images to express himself as well as painting, sculpture and architecture. Extremes of artistic collaboration around a single artist.

His iconic photograph of the Forbidden City behind his middle finger is the ultimate “selfie”. It is a simple idea, great composition, grainy, a bit fuzzy and presumably taken with an early model smart phone, certainly not overwhelmed by technology. A message so clear and loud it makes sense to anyone who wants to look. Cartier-Besson said that taking photographs was a way of shouting, the middle finger is a shout.

At the end of the film I had filled four pages of my notebook, about a quarter was about Ai Weiwei and three quarters were ideas that he sparked. The strongest idea is not especially insightful – we see this man fighting a repressive, secretive, faceless, control-freak of a government with Gandhi-like calm and non-violent means. He is a man with little or no freedom of speech who has found a hundred ways to say what needs to be said. He tells us that your “acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”**

Most of us live in a world where freedom of speech is overwhelmingly available and where most of us can think of nothing useful to say, not that this stops us or me. In 2003 Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  when he was speaking.  According the Domosphere website there are 2.1 billion internet subscribers who are posting 6,725 Instagram and flickr photos every minute, that is another 4.5 million photos posted by the time I get up tomorrow morning. This post is just 1 of 347 WordPress posts every minute, 229 thousand before breakfast.

I find this totally overwhelming. Finding our voice is a key objective of this course, being heard is a whole different challenge.


* Klayman, Alison. A Film (2013) Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, United Expression Media,

** Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. Aperture Foundation, New York

*** Robert Klanten  (Editor) , Matthias Hubner (Editor) , Alain Bieber (Editor). (2011) Art & Agenda, Political Art and Activism, Gestalten Verlag

Ai Weiwei official website (first accessed 2013)


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