Ai Weiwei and the Art of Activism


What does activism look like in 2016? Years of increasingly mediagenic protests have yielded different answers to this question. The Occupy movement, with its hashtag-friendly name and commutable concept (#OccupyLondon! #OccupyBahrain!), could be marked as the start of the age of viral protest. The Arab Spring was organized and often reported through social-media networks, stretching our definition of a news report to include bite-size dispatches on Twitter. Black Lives Matter built on many of the online structures that Occupy birthed, and the movement is a fight that takes place in digital as much as IRL space.

The resistance following Trump’s rise to power is no different: The nasty election was arguably won on the internet, and that’s where it continues to be fought.

Ai Weiwei, known in the West as China’s most famous artist and dissident, finally received his passport back from the Chinese government last year, permitting him to travel freely after a four-year house arrest. As if to celebrate his return to New York, the city where Ai spent a large part of the 1980s to escape the repression of his own country, the artist has staged simultaneous shows spread out over four spaces at three of the city’s major galleries. Since his release, Ai has focused on Europe’s refugee crisis and set up a studio on Lesbos, the Greek island and a principal entry point for most people fleeing to Europe. One might remember the photo in which he posed as drowned Syrian refugee infant Alan Kurdi. For better or worse, the image went viral.

The show at Deitch Projects in Soho squares most neatly with this contemporary image of activism, if only for the fact that the walls and floors have been plastered with Ai’s selfies and WhatsApp messages that came out of his time on Lesbos. But what’s in the space itself is much more haunting: Racks and racks are filled with clothes abandoned by refugees. The show is titled “Laundromat,” which refers to how the refugees’ clothes have been laundered, steamed, and sorted neatly by type, size, and color. In the background, a video shows the appalling conditions at the Idomeni refugee camp, the settlement near the Greek-Macedonian border that became notorious for both its size and its squalor. The show is an assault on the senses: It is impossible to look at the rows of pastel-colored baby rompers and not feel the carnal terror of having to care for a newborn in a mud-filled tent city.

In the interview that accompanies the exhibit, Ai says, “I cannot give them food or tea, or money, but rather I can let their voices be heard and recognized. I can give them a platform to be acknowledged, to testify that they are human beings.” I felt their humanity in the stains that Ai’s team didn’t manage to wash out, in the romper that says “I love daddy,” in the single rain-boot missing the corresponding shoe. And then I stepped out and cycled through Soho’s designer boutiques to visit the other galleries. Much as how when I first saw Alan Kurdi’s photo on Facebook, I looked at it, closed my brows- er, and moved on.

At the joint show at the Mary Boone and Lisson galleries in Chelsea, the call for attention is less urgent. The exhibition here is titled “Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches,” and indeed, both Lisson and Mary Boone’s downtown location are filled with what look like tree trunks. A 25-foot-tall tree at Mary Boone turns out, upon closer inspection, to be weathered trunks bolted together. At Lisson, the seven trunks spread throughout the gallery are actually cast-iron sculptures that contain parts of trees Ai gathered in various regions of China. (The trees looked so lifelike that a fellow visitor couldn’t resist touching the cast iron to verify what his eyes couldn’t see.) In the show’s literature, Lisson describes how the tree, as a sum of its parts, highlights Ai’s “focus on equality,” but with an artist as blatantly provocative as Ai this description feels post-rationalized. The trunks cannot contain the same moral weight as the Deitch installation. Which would have been fine, if the curators could have left it at that.

Ai also produced a series of wallpapers for the Lisson and Mary Boone galleries. One is a kaleidoscopic pattern that consists of golden Twitter birds and surveillance cameras; another, recalling Ai’s “Study of Perspective” series, features a decorative pattern composed entirely of countless outstretched arms with middle fingers raised. At Mary Boone’s uptown location, a carpet of porcelain spouts broken off from teapots seems a formal reference to the middle fingers printed on the wall. The wallpapers cannot be called elegant, nor well-made, though it’s clear they are sellable in a way that the spouts, and certainly the clothes, are not. Mary Boone’s press release emphasizes that Ai is not just an artist, but also a human rights activist. Other galleries echo this sentiment: Jeffrey Deitch, for example, described himself to me as Ai’s student. Yet this sentiment is one that is both manufactured and bought: It’s easy to see how the wallpapers could fill the drawing room of a collector dabbling in social conscience.

Major Western museums, galleries, and newspapers have embraced Ai Weiwei, perhaps because Western audiences and collectors are hungry for the simplified criticism Ai provides of China. The Chinese public isn’t as familiar with his work, whether because of government censorship or because his biggest exhibitions have taken place abroad. Chinese intellectuals fault him for provoking the government too much and closing off all modes of negotiation, while to Chinese people, what Ai reveals is no news. Living in China means every polluted breath is a reminder of the government’s oppression; what can an artist’s provocations add to that?

Recently, Ai has received increasing criticism in the West as well. Coincidence or not, it started when he shifted his focus from Chinese to European problems. He’s been accused of using a humanitarian crisis for personal fame, and his methods are seen as distasteful. While I can’t deny that his work is crude, that fact is itself a reminder that activism, like art, is a formal construct that follows its own set of aesthetic rules. Ai has been called crude on many occasions, but can we blame him for airing his life on social media when his home country is one that still bans Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

Some activists like to divvy up the tasks of raising awareness and organizing for change, as if a clear distinction can be made between the two. But in big movements, one often follows the other, however wonky the line connecting them. Activists might have been traumatized by the dissolution of Occupy, but the movement ensured Mayor de Blasio’s election, no matter how indirectly. Black Lives Matter, meanwhile, affected the way Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders conducted their campaigns. Ai Weiwei hails from a country whose restrictions on freedom of speech remain much more serious than in the U.S., Trump or no Trump. His work might be gaudy, but he serves as a timely reminder that understanding how to work with the media — whether print, social, or other — has always been and will always be an integral part of protest.

Ai Weiwei: ‘Laundromat’
Deitch Projects

‘Roots and Branches’
Lisson Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery