Illustration by Ben Beechener
In 1995, Ai Weiwei pointed his middle finger at the Tian’anmen square and took a picture of it. This would mark the beginning of a confrontational relationship between the artist and the Chinese government, which escalated into his abduction and unannounced detention for 81 days in 2011. Some art makes you complain ‘even I could do that’, but many of Ai’s works often make you plea ‘why would you do that’. Some say this out of annoyance. Still a little-known artist, Weiwei photographed himself grabbing a Han dynasty urn, a trophy of Chinese historical heights, and dropped it – sacrilegious to many in the government. ‘Anyone can call themselves an artist, you are at best an art worker’ chastised the interrogator during Ai’s detention. Others appeal in the name of prudence. Surely the freedom to express oneself is treasured, but you need to protect your own health and safety first. A brain haemorrhage caused by police beatings nearly killed him in 2009. Shared across these two sentiments is a conviction that Ai Weiwei worries too little. Stiffened by his unruly beard and distant gaze, Ai Weiwei may well come across as being confrontational for the sake of being confrontational, much like the middle finger which he points at (almost) everything.
In a world where only the loudest seem to have the right to speak, there is a strong case for iconoclasts like Ai Weiwei. Pointing his finger at institutions which perpetuate injustice, Ai Weiwei lends a breath to those who are mute because they cannot shout. I had bought a ticket to his newest exhibit convinced that I was there for the drama, but a part of me knew I wanted to borrow the middle finger too. I managed to find that, but much more. Surprising me in the best way possible, I found a sense of vulnerability, of respect and gentleness behind every work which initially came across as being confrontational.
Set in an old rope-making factory in seaside Lisbon, Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibition, ‘Rapture’, captures a bit of everything that the homonym stands for – a feeling of ecstasy, to have one’s freedom hijacked, and the transcendence between the earthly and spiritual dimensions. Fittingly, the venue, which is a long open hall with vaulted ceilings, is divided into sections dedicated to ‘fantasy’, and the other to ‘reality’. ‘Go to ‘fantasy’ first and then come back to see ‘reality’, it makes more sense that way’, advised the security guard on how to view the exhibit, and perhaps life too.
Everything on display had its confrontational edge. ‘Refraction’, a collapsed metal wing, marked the beginning of ‘fantasy’. Each individual metal ‘feather’ is made from used solar cookers, bought by Tibetan families without access to gas stoves. The piece evokes a conflict between physical constraint and internal solace, between the Tibetan people and the Chinese government. Hanging right above the entrance is ‘Snake Ceiling’, an intricate agglomeration of children’s backpacks in the shape of a serpent, representing students who died from poorly-built schools in the Sichuan earthquake, an embarrassment which the government has tried to hide. While this piece targets corrupt institutions, its placement within the museum holds the visitor accountable too – tucked high into the vaulted ceilings, most visitors will notice the serpent as they are walking from ‘fantasy’ into ‘reality’ – it’s a wake-up call to the kind of reality we are in and the reality we should work towards.
Despite the artist’s aloof demeanor, there was also a cutting wit to his work. ‘Human flow’, a documentary on the global refugee crisis, is the product of Ai Weiwei traveling through countless nations and continents to record events first-hand. The film is powerful and distressing, with a weight sometimes too heavy for its apparently mundane title to bear. Surely, there ought to be more to the title. And there indeed is, ‘human flow’ transliterated into Chinese means ‘abortion’. Perhaps to catch out those who offer insincere sympathies from their armchairs, Ai Weiwei is urging us to mean what we say before we say ‘human flow’ is a beautiful documentary.
Not all that Ai Weiwei does is to provoke a reaction – and this is where his tenderness shines through – he is also mindful of what his art does for the people that produce it. Working with Portuguese ceramicists and Chinese kite-makers, ‘Rapture’ is an exhibit of craftspeople’s mastery when granted creative liberty. Now, the irony is certainly there – it seems like we only remember to cherish artisanship when we see it behind velvet ropes – but I wonder if this feeling of guilt is more useful than anything else.
I hope that the label ‘confrontational’ is beginning to feel imprecise, if not insincere to what Ai Weiwei’s art does. He uses art as a way to protect freedom and to learn from our history. It is only in the presence of institutions who are threatened by these values that Ai Weiwei’s art becomes confrontational. Therefore, there might even be a growing sense that being confrontational is a symptom of what he does, but not the goal of his doing. If anything, Ai Weiwei’s middle-finger points at nothing but whatever dares to stand in front of it. And that middle-finger is his unwavering humanitarianism.
Once you believe there is a tenderness beneath his abrasiveness, you begin to see it everywhere. ‘Ground’ is a 45-meter-long carpet. Being earth-toned makes it easily overlooked as an existing feature of the gallery of the gallery, but the patterns which decorate it are those of tank tracks, specifically of the type which roamed Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989. Weaving history into a carpet is Ai’s clearest invitation to step on it, but he anticipated we would fear the wrath of the security guard too much to dare. A big shame, since only by standing on the carpet could we get the best view of what’s kited above it: an array of Chinese mythical beasts crafted from bamboo and silk, a symbol of China’s diverse and creative past, a past that now feels all too distant.