Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei Exhibits in Paris at Jeu De Paume Museum
I recently visited the retrospective exhibition of Ai Weiwei at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris where his work is being exhibited along with Berenice Abbott.
If nothing else, Ai Weiwei has certainly been prolific. There is an obsessive-compulsive quality to his work, especially the later work when he is using his telephone to shoot and immediately post to his blog or other online accounts.
Naturally, when there is little or no editing taking place one finds the good, the bad and the ugly in his work. That said, for a Western audience, his work does offer us a view into Chinese society–albeit one made up of artists one suspects are far from being in the mainstream in China.
Because Ai Weiwei seems to have been on machine gun speed with his cameras for much of the last twenty years–including during the 1980s and 1990s when shooting film–there are many ups and downs. The early New York period is interesting in how it gives us a glimpse of the life of Chinese students living in New York. In some ways they don’t seem so different from slacker art students of any nationality–and this may be part of the interest–but I suspect it also betrays some of his very Western attitudes about art and life.
Overall, Ai Weiwei seems caught between two worlds. There is the part of him that seems to have been seduced by the Western cult of personality that has become the expectation in the American art world–and this part seems a bit too self-focused and not particularly interested in bigger societal or existential issues. But on the other side, as for example, after the earthquake in China in 2008, he made some quite beautiful and moving pictures of the aftermath of this tragedy which show a strong interest in the world around him.
One cannot neglect to mention his on-going battle with the Chinese government over his outspoken nature. He has shown remarkable courage in taking on the government and withstanding his emprisonment and torture only to go right back to work taunting the government, defying their effort to silence him.
It may well be that these experiences play a central role in his choice to make himself more and more the center of his work. This may, in effect, offer him additional security as the government now is unable to simply eliminate this thorn in their side which they might have been tempted to do with a lesser known artist.
In the end it’s difficult to evaluate Ai Weiwei’s work because of the reality of his personal struggles in China. He certainly deserves all the credit in the world for his courage to continue in his outspoken ways, challenging the government to allow for some semblance of free speech in the country. This is clearly an honorable and remarkably courageous quest on his part. And from a Western vantage point we probably can’t begin to imagine the stress and danger he faces through his actions.
That said, while there are some definite high points to his work, ultimately, some of the series don’t have the same interest or power.