The definition of a backslapper: “A chameleon on plaid, changing colors and shifting form.” A phrase coined for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the slippery presidential candidate in 1932, these words perfectly describe the global art world today—at least as glimpsed at its own freewheeling, tone-deaf recent version of the Oscars, the 54th Venice Biennial.
An economically segregated (or is that curated?) waterlogged party glutted by world-weary artists, curators, dealers, journalists, museum folk, government functionaries, and the odd mogul, this year’s biennial primed the pump on phony fellow-feeling. Besides the Olympic runner on a clattering tank outside the American pavilion (some American artists, it turns out, are as loud as dinner at the Olive Garden) and the sloganeering tote bags (there should be a law!), there was the bewildering malapropism that Italian artist Giuseppe Stampone rigged as a backlit sign on the banks of the Grand Canal. It read, witlessly, in imitation of a genuine political gesture: “Bye Bye Ai Weiwei.”
How is one to interpret this oafish art-world kiss-off? As a last gasp of postmodern irony? As an illustration of the real-world limits of globish? As a case of a mediocre artist overthinking complexity into banality? (As British critic Adrian Searle put it, “Ciao Ai Weiwei” would at least have served as a hail-fellow across the brackish water.) Fired by whatever dim rationale, Stampone nonetheless blurted out the words most revelers avoided during the lavish lunches, dinners, and late-night festas. The elephant in the room has a name—however eccentric its lilt in the Western gob. The disappearance of Ai Weiwei some months ago by the Chinese Communist authorities has become the single most important event facing the visual arts today.
Arrested on April 3 at Beijing’s Capital Airport as he was preparing to board a scheduled flight to Hong Kong and held in deep storage ever since, Ai Weiwei has become the first great artistic touchstone of the 21st century. A Guernica-like event for the age of global ideological agnosticism and information glut, Ai’s detention leapt off the pages of the art press into the 24/7 news roulette. Ai’s figure today collapses a welter of seesawing ideas into a comprehensible nutshell: East and West, communism and capitalism, freedom and repression, art and politics. Whatever the geopolitical considerations, the fate of China’s most famous artist is currently understood by a ballooning public—like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Nelson Mandela’s plight once was—to stand for the expansion of freedom around the world.
A global art star, an internationally recognized architect (he co-designed the Beijing Olympic Stadium), and an outspoken dissident since before he achieved international recognition as an artist—his father, the poet Ai Qing, was tagged an “enemy of the people” by Mao, banishing the family into subsistence living inside a real-life earthen pit—Ai Weiwei is a celebrity in China beyond anything we might imagine in the U.S. An artist turned political provocateur, he has repeatedly risked imprisonment or worse (beaten by the police a few years ago, he nearly died from a resulting brain hemorrhage) to call attention to injustices the Chinese government would rather literally bury.
Ai’s tremendous importance now rests largely on the fact that he has resuscitated the figure of the public intellectual—in a plugged-in, global guise. Using his fame as a platform and art as his bullhorn, he has challenged the regime on everything from corruption to its killer AIDS policy to its responsibility in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2006, Ai harnessed the Web to expand his audience even further. Breaching the Great Firewall to reach a public hungry for uncensored communications from inside the People’s Republic has proved key to his survival.
“All the defects of my era are reflected in my person,” Ai wrote in his hugely popular blog before the Chinese authorities pulled it down in May 2009. A mix of reflection, social criticism, rants, and the sort of public accounting that makes the Chinese government go all Kim Jong-il (the site included the complete list, compiled by the artist, of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake), Ai’s 2,700 posts were recently translated into English by MIT Press. Published this year as Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006–2009, the book charts his explosion of contemporary art’s hidebound limitations. Called “one of the greatest social sculptures of our time” by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ai’s blog also proved a demonstration—along with the Arab Spring—of the genuine social utility of the Internet versus the West’s narcissistic use of it as entertainment.
“They are arrogant enough to believe that stolen authority could alter the truth or alter the will of others,” Ai wrote in one blog entry, which reads perfectly as an introduction to the giant bronzes currently on view at the entrance to Central Park. Ai’s first major New York outing—the artist lived in the East Village between 1981 and 1993—revisits a storied if abidingly bogus instance of hurt Chinese national pride (for a local equivalent, consider the free-for-all for the Islamic Center at Ground Zero; now squirm).
Re-creations of pieces plundered by British and French troops during the Second Opium War, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads reshuffles the spiny issues of looting, repatriation, and jingoism with a healthy dose of moxie: “The rabbit and rat bronzes from the Old Summer Palace are not Chinese culture, and they have no artistic value,” Ai said before casting his faux-historical menagerie. He has arrayed these counterfeits inside the Pulitzer Fountain—as fake as any LV handbag on Canal Street, they illustrate centuries of sham tangles between civilizations as often cooperating as not. Sound familiar?
Michael Bloomberg put it brilliantly last month at the unveiling of Zodiac Heads: “Artists risk everything to create. They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism. But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that.” After the “Free Ai Weiwei” signs are taken down, and the petition drives have dried up, it will remain for artists like Anish Kapoor—who cancelled an elaborate show last week at Beijing’s National Museum—to take up Ai’s cause and example. If everything can be art today, then surely we should begin with guaranteeing its freedom of expression.
UPDATE: The UK’s Guardian newspaper is reporting today, June 22, that Ai Weiwei has just been freed after two and a half months of detention by Chinese police. Police say they have released the artist on bail “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes,” and also “in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.” A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch predicts that the artist will probably have to apply for permission to travel outside the country and have to report regularly to the police. The parallels to the “official” totalitarian miseries experienced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Soviet Russia continue. After the smoke clears in next few weeks, we will know whether Ai has traded his police cell for a prison as big as China. Whatever his new conditions, he has already done more than anyone living to earn the next Nobel Peace Prize.