image by imp kerr, photos by author

In America, Ai Weiwei isn't a dissident or a rebel, he's a foreign policy asset and an artist of art's limits

“What can they do besides exile or make me disappear? They have no imagination or creativity.” -- Ai Weiwei

Large solo shows are risky for conceptual artists: too much coherence across the work and they might come off like a one-trick pony; too little, a dilettante. Wall after wall of polka dots makes a viewer feel like the butt of a joke called art, while a haphazard jumble of paintings, photographs, and sculptures raises the suspicion that there must be something second-rate in the bunch. An artist working in a single medium can develop themes or patterns, but for conceptual artists, their work too often collapses into a binary of one or not-one ideas. Either you can describe what they do in a sentence, or you don't bother.

Down this narrow tightrope unicycles “Ai Wei Wei: According to What?” at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., with a balance that would make any daredevil jealous. It’s not a stretch to call Ai the world’s most famous living artist, as the New York Times did. He might well be the best-known artist in America. While his big-name market competitors have mined obscurantism and self-parody in a constant struggle to create stakes for their work, Ai’s collisions with Chinese censors make his significance readily -- and internationally -- apparent. CNN certainly wasn’t seeking out Damien Hirst for election commentary.

Inside the exhibit, the black-and-white photos of Ai hanging out in the East Village in the '80s have an Instagram scale that’s in stark contrast with the spaceless wallpapering shots of the Beijing Olympic Stadium that he helped design. One radius of the Hirshhorn doughnut is devoted to Ai’s vases. Where Damien Hirst plays with diamonds, Ai  toys with artifacts: a Neolithic vase with a painted silver Coca-Cola logo. Against the gallery's outer wall is the larger-than-life photo triptych of Ai dropping a Han Dynasty urn to shatter on the ground.

Though the show occupies the large second-floor gallery of the Hirshhorn (and the 12 great bronze lollipops that make up Ai’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” surround the outside fountain in the eye of the building’s hurricane architecture), “According to What?” still can feel like a zoo whose big cats are kept uncomfortably close. This is, after all, an artist who once memorably filled the Tate’s Turbine Hall with 100 million (possibly toxic) sunflower seeds. The expressly political balances with the innocuously abstract, but while the content is evenly weighed, the sheer volume threatens to overwhelm its bounds. It has the unnatural vibe of an all-star team or rock supergroup. Installation art, like other apex predators, demands a lot of space.

Ai is a conceptual artist in a more straightforward sense than most of his contemporaries. It’s possible to place his installations in part because his more notable pieces have specific referents: a pile of painted ceramic river crabs puns off the similarity of the animal’s name with the word for “harmony” -- a euphemism used to justify Chinese government censorship. Thousands of crustaceans abut large stacks of rebar salvaged from schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, an indictment of the government’s shoddy building practices and equally shoddy cover-up. Ai has been investigating the truth behind the earthquake’s consequences and he’s listed the results in classically grim fashion: floor-to-ceiling names of the dead. Overhead, there curves an undulating centipede of children’s backpacks, representing those lost. It’s not the full piece, but the viewer gets the idea.

In Ai, American pundits find a rare bird indeed: he’s a well-respected and politically conscious international artist who doesn’t have a grudge against the United States. In fact, he kind of likes the good old U.S.A. In an interview with New York Times columnist and Inspector Clouseau of imperialism Nicholas Kristof, Ai said, “China still needs help from the U.S. To insist on certain values, that is the role of the U.S.” When goaded to complain, he faults America for not dealing with China more actively on human rights.

This is certainly how America likes to think of itself -- as a global force for liberal enlightenment values like free speech -- especially in comparison with China, its largest rival and creditor. But artists, including Ai, have been quick to point out the USA’s inconsistent moralizing. What good is artistic freedom to a drone strike victim?

As a liberal critic of the Chinese government, Ai makes a great addition to the American line. The same country -- and it is very much the same country -- that denied Paul Robeson his passport for fear he would shed too much light on his home uses China’s refusal to let Ai attend the Hirshhorn opening as just another example of backwards chauvinist totalitarianism. Wrenched from his context as an internal critic, Ai's pieces take on new meaning, and a new violence. His pile of rebar wreckage tells a different story when displayed in a country that spent over $100 million remaking and watching Red Dawn as a paranoid fantasy about Chinese invasion.

Yes, I know it was about “North Korea.” The change was made in post-production. Read between the lines.

If we think of America as a neutral space, a Switzerland for the celebration of the world’s art, it blinds us to historical context. We’re not that far from the time when General Douglas MacArthur told a French reporter, “Give me a handful of bombs and I'll take care of China’s industrial bases.” When it comes to art, Americans view ourselves as cosmopolitans, citizens of the world; we forget that everyone else doesn’t have cause to draw our self-serving separation between policy and pretension.

As if to emphasize the point, Ai’s zodiac heads -- modeled on pieces destroyed by colonial powers -- will travel to Princeton after D.C. is done with them. Princeton’s antiquities curator recently dodged criminal charges after the university agreed to return a number of stolen Italian artifacts, including a marble goat’s head.

When the National Art Museum of China rises next to the Bird’s Nest Stadium Ai helped design, how would Americans react if they displayed a giant posthumous show by David Wojnarowicz?

Wojnarowicz was a New York artist and activist, whose film A Fire In My Belly was removed from the Smithsonian in 2010 after a public outcry by Christian groups.
How would we read a cross covered in ants in Beijing? We wouldn’t see a pile of American rubble or a scorched flag in a Chinese museum as a celebration of transnational artistic vision, it would appear to us as thinly veiled aggression, as a provocation. China’s motives would seem obvious and opportunistic in equal measure.

Ai is no naive painter stuck between two superpowers in a bipolar world. The artist is clear as can be about his geopolitical thoughts in Weiwei-isms, a poorly named collection of Tweets and other short statements turned aphorisms published by Princeton Press and excerpted in the global market’s official paper, The Wall Street Journal. “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” is embossed on the black back cover in gold. He’s upfront about the collusion between his home country and America: “Because of the economic crisis, China and the United States are bound together. This is a totally new phenomenon, and nobody will fight for ideology anymore. It’s all about business.”

“His work will always be read as a middle finger (sometimes it literally is) to the Chinese state.” - Smithsonian Magazine

Though the lines between nations are blurred, Ai’s calculus is simple. In Weiwei-ism after Weiwei-ism, he puts freedom of expression on a pedestal. It’s circular logic: artists need freedom of expression so they can further the cause of freedom expression. Art is for politics, politics is for art. He’s been willing to offer a tacit endorsement of American policy -- the headline on his CNN op-ed was “Despite flaws, America should be proud” -- under a kind of Cold War enemy-of-my-enemy logic.

But there’s more than one way to tame an artist, and liberal democracies have developed their own strategies of containment for the unruly. The deal liberalism has made with art is that artists can say whatever they want as long as they don’t touch anything that doesn’t belong to them. And artists have to compete for attention with multibillion-dollar corporations bent on entertaining their way into viewers’ pockets. That way, the risk to current structures of power is minimized without disturbing the state’s ostensible commitment to freedom of expression. And when art struggles in its fuzzy handcuffs, it generates new images for sale.

For outstanding examples of tamed art, you needn’t look further than the Hirshhorn’s basement. There, Barbara Kruger’s giant anticonsumerist slogans cover the floors and walls, “MONEY MAKES MONEY” on one escalator and “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.” on another. They’re blunt, leaving little to the imagination; it’s advertising against advertising, and good work at that. But the room’s punchline is off to one side: Here the giant slogans are miniaturized and made portable on T-shirts and tote bags.  You can actually buy “I SHOP, THEREFORE I AM” on a postcard. No art show, even at a state-supported museum, is complete without the merch table.

In one of the basement projector rooms, there’s a film by Democracia, a Madrid-based arts collective. Ser y Durar (To Be and To Last) is a video of Spanish parkour runners as they traverse the city outside the implied routes. It looks like a very cool Nike ad; their hoodies are emblazoned with emblems the creators explain “refer to the working class, internationalism, anarchy, secret societies, and revolution.” Referring to revolution is something late capitalist branding agencies are really good at: your cell phone carrier is revolutionary, your body spray is revolutionary, your nail polish remover is revolutionary. Art, however, merely refers.

Sinead Murphy describes liberalism’s pacification of art well in her book The Art Kettle: “‘freedom’ as a regulative ideal tends, once it begins to operate at the level of form rather than content, to reduce political action to a mere performance of action, to remake it as an ‘installation’ with merely aesthetic import, and thereby to manage very well its scope and its effects.” Duchamp’s readymades proved that, within the rules, anything could be fetishized as art, any object could become art and earn protection as such. But once a toilet becomes art, the process isn’t reversible. Freedom of artistic expression is the freedom to create fetish objects, to invest a thing

If you’re being conceptual, a moment of art remains a thing.
with enough value that it can’t help but be a representation, a reference. Ai marvels in Weiwei-isms about what he can get away with under the label of “art,” but he doesn’t attempt to probe why that’s the case, to measure the costs.

As a case study, let’s look at Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

On the surface level, the photo set appears to mock artistic fetishism: Ai looks like he could not possibly give a fuck as he lets the valuable artifact shatter on the ground. There’s a sublime disregard in the pictures; it’s art against art like Kruger’s sentences are ads against ads. But as an artist, Ai can’t destroy art, he can only make more. From one urn, he gets three pictures. If I went into the Hirshhorn, grabbed one of the photos off the wall, and let it fall to ground like I didn’t give a fuck, I would be arrested and taken to jail. It’s only freedom of expression if you break something you own, otherwise it’s vandalism.

One true vandal learned this lesson (or taught it) very publicly when Vladimir Umanets was sentenced to two years in prison for writing “a potential work of yellowism” on a Mark Rothko painting in London’s Tate Modern. Yellowism is the idea that if anything can become art regardless of its use value, then we could imagine a third category of stuff past art, in light of which the art/non-art distinction dissolves. Both are equally potential works of yellowism, just like a soup can and a urinal are equally art objects. Umanets writing “a potential work of yellowism” on a Rothko is the same as Duchamp Sharpie-ing “a potential work of art” on a toilet while he takes a piss. Except Umanets isn’t an artist. We know he’s not an artist because he’s in jail in England, and England, Ai would remind us, has freedom of expression.

Umanets wasn’t looking for freedom of expression, but freedom from expression, out from under the artistic injunction to replace what you destroy. He wanted to break without buying, but that’s not in liberalism’s deal. And no one cries for a vandal.

Because Umanets is a vandal and not an artist, there won’t be any complaints from the U.S. State Department. Because this is England and not Russia, there won’t be a Human Rights Watch report, as there was for the band Pussy Riot when they were arrested for trespassing. Even anti-capitalist arts writers called for his head on a platter.

Art, like the market, promises that you can do anything you want, as long as you keep your hands to yourself. You can put an iPad in a blender, but you can’t just take one off a store shelf to do it. You can break a Han Dynasty urn, but not a framed picture of someone else breaking a Han Dynasty urn.

In America, Ai Wei Wei’s pieces are paired with their imagined absence in China. It’s a single gigantic work of implied distinction, a portrait of freedom of expression drawn in negative space. In the Hirshhorn he is to art as art is to capitalism: a reminder of what’s allowed.