Peter Hill

The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993

Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)


Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of several artists whose work only connects tangentially with the art of the Superfiction. However, like Jorg Immendorff or Group Irwin, much of his work grows from a political-conceptual background, and the Duchampian art object (in Ai Weiweiís case) subverts dogma through poetic fiction. See profile below.

Ai Weiwei profile by Peter Hill

It was an unseasonably cold morning in Sydney when I met Ai Weiwei at the new Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington. For the past two weeks it had been raining almost constantly and now we had swapped umbrellas for thick pullovers. But as Billy Connolly once said, there is no such thing as bad weather only the wrong clothes.

We sat at a large table while a gallery assistant plugged in a portable electric heater. Ai Weiwei laughed when I produced both an old-fashioned tape recorder and a state of the art digital recorder. It’s my trusted belt-and-braces technique for doing interviews, I explained.

“People don’t trust this new technology yet. You can’t see the tape moving,” he commented, taking a photograph of me struggling with both devices. “Yet it is so good. You can download it straight on to your computer.”

As we talked, one of his assistants circled around us constantly with a video recorder. Half an hour earlier we had been in the Foundation’s long gallery that has been totally invaded by a deconstructed Chinese Temple. Imagine thirty or so telegraph poles intersecting with a number of ancient Chinese tables and you get a feeling for the work.  I’d watched, impressed, as he’d patiently submitted to several photo-calls and spent as much time photographing the photographers as they had him. He seemed to be recording his whole life in real time, like a Borghesian map that fits perfectly over the territory it describes.

Ai’s work over the past three decades has gone from early student demonstrations in Beijing when the Stars group hung their work on the railings opposite the National Museum, through his Safe Sex of 1986 when he attached a condom to a raincoat on a coat-hanger, to his huge projects of recent years such as Fairytale where he arranged for 1001 of his fellow countrymen – who had applied through his blog – to visit the 2007 documenta in Kassel and live there for the duration of the event. Also in 2007 he built Fountain of Light at Tate Liverpool a re-working of Tatlin’s Tower which attempts to show the possibilities and the limitations of the imagination. And if you can imagine a Mario Merz igloo constructed from bicycles, then that is how “Forever” Bicycles looked in 2003.

So our conversation could have started from many points, but I began by asking him about his collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron on the Beijing Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, due to open in a few weeks. From what I’d read I gathered that he was not a big sports fan.

The kind of sport I like is talking,” he said, pointing to his mouth. “I use my tongue and my lips and my voice in this kind of sport. Walking is a not bad sport either. You can get from place A to place B without other people’s help. You don’t need any vehicle, you just move your legs and that is quite beautiful, I think. I really don’t associate with the values of the Olympics, glorifying people who jump higher or run faster than someone else. And I don’t like the commercialisation of it all.”

Was there a point, I wondered, when he felt he had to withdraw from the project?

No, I never really withdrew from it. The project is complete and is very beautiful. What I have withdrawn from is this celebration of the Olympics which has really been a way of glorifying China and the achievements of the Party. This I find to be misleading and disgusting. The Communist Party has nothing to feel glorified about and much to be ashamed of. They should be ashamed of the lack of individual rights, the lack of freedom of speech, the lack of democracy and of democratic, efficient structures within society. As for the building itself, people have called this stadium ‘the bird’s nest’ but it was never meant to look like a nest. Rather, the process of construction we saw as similar to the way a nest is constructed by birds.”

The next morning, as I typed out our conversation (from the tape, not the digital recorder – old habits die very hard), Wi is quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying, in relation to the current Chinese regime, “I don’t see myself as being a dissident artist I see them as being a dissident government.” And asked if he is he waiting for a stern official reaction, replies, “I’ve been waiting for that moment. Everybody warns me of this. If nothing happens it will be a big disappointment.” In The Sydney Morning Herald a different story announces “A Chinese court jailed 30 people for terms ranging from three years to life yesterday for their roles in Tibet’s deadly riots, which triggered anti-China protests across the globe ahead of the Beijing Olympics.”

Ai is not a political naïve. He was born into this kind of totalitarian repression. I asked him about these early influences. “I grew up in a society with so much injustice so that it is very difficult for artists like me not to be concerned with basic human conditions.”  His father had been one of China’s leading poets and was twice exiled, with his family, to the Gobi desert and later to the far north east of China. What were conditions like then?

“It was a very difficult period for myself and my whole family as well as the nation. It was the early days of the communist struggle, similar to what Stalin did in Russia or in North Korea today. It’s really sacrificing everything to maintain power. Life and the dignity of life never existed in that time. We were living under the most extreme circumstances. My father was forced to clean the public toilets for the whole village and the people could throw stones at him and beat him and do any kind of inhuman act to him. Under totalitarian circumstances like these, humanity can be totally lost. Everybody is so scared, everybody wants to be part of the big power and to sacrifice the person next to him or her. There are lies and false accusations everywhere. I grew up with the idea of the artist as being a way to escape. You have another set of values and of judgements. Art allows you to escape from the public domain.”

In 1981 he did escape and went overseas to America. First he went to Philadelphia and then to New York.  “I tried to be an artist and to become part of the art world,” he tells me. “Of course, being a student and a new immigrant it was a difficult struggle. Getting money to pay the rent and to buy food had to be balanced with trying to keep working as an artist. Also, it was a very different art world then and the dominant movement was neo-expressionism in painting. I ended up studying with the painter Sean Scully at Parsons School of Art. He taught me the importance of Robert Ryman’s work which I had previously rejected.”

Ten years later Ai returned to China and mounted an exhibition of 50 Beijing artists in Shanghai called “Fuck Off”. It coincided with the first Shanghai Biennale and was closed down by the police. I asked him if this was the period when he was making work featuring live animals, and if so could he describe some of these pieces and the work of the other artists in Fuck Off?

“When I returned I realised there was a lack of meaningful discussion about art and its practice. It was all about painting and sculpture and very little about contemporary conceptual practice and experimental art performance. So we did a book called Black Book to document some of our work and this was followed by White Book and Grey Book. These were very influential on a whole generation of artists who started doing experimental works instead of making commercial works. Also, at that time China had no gallery, no museum, no magazines to discuss contemporary art. Contemporary art was seen as spiritual pollution from the West. Much of the work we made was made underground.”

Charles Merewether goes in to this period in some detail in the catalogue. “Soon after his return, many artists, including Ai Waiwai, joined what became known as the East Village (Dongcun). Lying on the eastern margins of the city, the area was semi-rural and rough in its living conditions but the group formed a strong, active community. This included writers, photographers such as Rong Rong, and performance artists Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming, among others, all of whom produced their own exhibitions and performances. The idea of creating a community persisted with Ai Weiwei, who then joined forces with the curator and writer Fenf Boyi, and two artists living in New York, Xu Bing and Zeng Xiaojun. Together they produced the Black Cover Book which contained articles on contemporary Chinese artists interspersed with images by and texts on Duchamp, Warhol, and Jeff Koons.”

Ai Weiwei picks up the story again. “Then in 2000, as you say, I had the chance to curate a show called Fuck Off. There were fifty artists, most of whom had been associated with Black Book. The works were quite varied and quite extreme. Some were bloody and violent, even using live animals while others were quite sexually explicit. All of these things were quite taboo in China. One artist ate the body of a dead baby.”

This was a bit of a conversation stopper and I groped for another question. I’d long wondered about the destructive elements in some of his works, and the celebratory nature of other pieces. In recent years we have seen Michael Landy destroy all of his life-time possessions in an Artangel sponsored project called Breakdown. The Chapman Brothers have drawn over a suite of Goya etchings, and the history of modernism is scattered with such acts, which I call Aesthetic Vandalism, as slashed canvases and machines which auto-destruct. Ai famously dropped a Han Vase and recorded the event in three large black and white photographic images (1995). The vase is held in the artist’s hands. The vase is seen falling like Newton’s apple, a pure statement about gravity. And finally the vase lies shattered on the ground. One year before, he overpainted another Han Dynasty urn with the Coca-Cola logo. And two years after that he broke two blue-and-white Dragon Bowls. Ai was reluctant to talk about these works at length merely saying that “These things really happened spontaneously, they were not a planned strategy. They were silly actions – fake fate. Let’s just call them “fake fate”.

Later, when I ask him about his statement that “art today is about attitude and lifestyle” he comes closer to expanding on his device of breaking objects. “I think that contemporary art and practice offers a different interpretation of life today. It also offers possibilities and a new awareness of the new condition we are in. The new condition is represented by a broken aesthetic and a broken morality. There is no single way to interpret the world and no unified rules. As artists we must use our sensitivities to reflect these new conditions.”

The catalogue for Ai’s Campbelltown show in Sydney’s western suburbs is likely to become the standard text for many years. Intelligently written in jargon-free language by Charles Merewether, it gives deep insights into the artist’s working methods and historical influences. It is particularly good on the influence of Mao on the one side and Marcel Duchamp on the other. In the catalogue to the Fuck Off exhibition in Shanghai, Ai presented two fictional texts as his artist’s statement. One was written in the voice of Mao: “Those comrades who are firm and determined in today’s ideological struggles and those who have no fear of power and no compromise with vulgarisation will be the hope of tomorrow’s new culture.” The other is in the voice of Duchamp who states: “It’s just my own game. Nothing else.”

“Alongside these texts,” writes Merewether “Ai Weiwei included two recent bodies of artwork showing the dropping of the Han Dynasty clay urn, the Qing furniture pieces and, as the final image, the famous photograph of Gold Distribution by Henri Cartier-Bresson, showing a group of Chinese people who, with startled, anxious faces, jostle against one anther to hold their place in a queue. It was taken in Shanghai in 1949, the year the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China.”

Many artists – from Courbet to Jorg Immendorff, Komard and Melamid, Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, and more recently Doris Salcedo – have commented on art and politics and often been politically active. Some have done so in a provocative way while others have been advocates for the victims.

“I grew up in a society with so much injustice so that it is very difficult for artists like me not to be concerned with basic human conditions. So with me it’s not about a gesture or a strategy but how you personally value culture and life. It is not about the necessity of expression but the necessity of surviving.”

Finally, as the video assistant continued to swoop around us, I wondered if there was a Chinese equivalent – perhaps from the distant past - to the Dada movement that seemed so central to his work methods.

“Yes, I think Duchamp was one person who had his own relations to contemporary art. Very much his own. But his ideas seem so much associated with the early Taoists who he had studied. So I think there is a connection there and everything has come full circle.

I finished with the obligatory question about his next project. What was he planning?

Peter Hill
April 26, 2008
C 2008

The Biennale of Sydney 2002 | Elevator Surfing | Encyclopaedia of Superfictions | The Manhattan Archives | The Art Fair Murders | Book Reviews | International Portrait Gallery | The Changing Room | The El Greco Search Engine | Press Office | Museum Shop | Current Writing | The Sorbonne Conference | Superfictions Phd | Basement - Plato's Cave

Feedback, comments and enquires

Back to museum lift