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After 12 years in the US, Ai Weiwei returned to work in China in 1993. Photo: Neil Hall/Reuters
After 12 years in the US, Ai Weiwei returned to work in China in 1993. Photo: Neil Hall/Reuters

The staggeringly political art of Ai Weiwei

The dissenting artist has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese state. Why do Indian artists stay away from the big political issues of our times?

The first time I saw Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s work, earlier this year in Beijing, I couldn’t figure it out. He had dismantled his ancestral home after the death of his father, who was a famous poet forced into a camp by the Communists and made to clean toilets for a living. He reassembled its frame, but not its walls, in two locations. Why? I could sense the ideas of dislocation and exile, but I wasn’t quite sure. I was also not clear about why he had become as famous as he has.

A few weeks later, I saw more of his work at an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Then I understood. It is staggering stuff.

He is the most intensely political artist I have seen. Brave, defiant and depressing (about which more later). Let me describe some of the work on display in London.

The most important one is called Straight, made over five years from 2008-2012. On May 12 2008, an earthquake in Sichuan killed thousands. Many of these were children whose schools collapsed. This was thought to be because a contractor had made them with cheap material, particularly low quality rebar (the rods we call saria in Hindi). The local government did not release the details of the children killed fearing a scandal. Ai did two things. He started seeking out the parents and interviewing them for his blog, on which he began publishing his findings. And he bought hundreds of tons of rubble from the collapsed buildings. He then began removing the rebar from the rubble, 200 tons of metal in all, and began with a team to straighten them out one by one. His installation in London has 90 tons of the metal patterned into a beautiful, undulating landscape. On the walls on either side are his findings: the names, birthdates and ages of the 5,196 children killed. The government took his blog down soon after.

A second installation is called Souvenir From Shanghai. The local government there invited him to build a studio-workshop (with Ai the two are inseparable, given the scales he works with) on land it allocated to him. After it was fully constructed, the government panicked and, on the most classic of excuses—no proper permissions—tore it down. Ai celebrated this demolition with a party where he served river crab to hundreds of supporters. The installation in London is an ornate gate in a demolished wall of rubble, all that remains of the studio-workshop. Accompanying the work is a video in which the whole sequence of events is recorded secretly. Ai was arrested and held for a couple of months in captivity and his passport was taken away.

A third installation is a series of six dioramas, meaning 3D models, of Ai in captivity. It shows how his two minders were with him at every minute of the day, including when he was in the shower and on the pot.

In the videos he comes across as totally and uncompromisingly defiant and stubborn even though polite. His moral courage and the correctness of his position becomes apparent in the defensive manner of the state officials who go about bludgeoning his freedoms.

I scribbled notes as he spoke (in the video) and here is what he says:

“I have to face my reality and not try to escape from it. I have the responsibility to let other people know it," he says, insisting that this is not his problem alone but “the problem of my nation."

“Liberty" he says “is our right to question everything."

He is such an attractive figure because of his clarity. For this reason he is a global phenomenon. An installation outside the museum has been made possible by Kickstarter and the contributions of about 350 donors are listed alphabetically. The first name, I notice, is A. Ahuja.

Ai spent 12 years in the US, returning to China in 1993 and remaining there. His work before 2008 is mostly conceptual. After that it has become intensely political.

He uses puns and the fact that the Chinese have many words that sound alike, for instance “grassroots" and “fuck". Or “river crabs" and “harmonious", the word used by a state that insists on conformity and order. He constantly blogs and posts pictures and articles, using Twitter and Instagram, because his art is a commentary on society and state.

His finest work of protest is, of course, his life and how he has chosen to live it. I was fascinated enough by him to revisit the London works in November and also a similar exhibition of his in Helsinki.

I am generally becoming more pessimistic as I go through middle age but Ai left me positively depressed. You probably know why but I will describe it in any case.

Much of my time abroad in the West is spent on high culture: music, theatre, museums. The Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum in London has a wonderful exhibition on old textiles from India, mostly from Gujarat.

Outside the V&A is a large work the museum has commissioned Subodh Gupta for. It is, as is much of Gupta’s work, a pretty, metallic sculpture. A gigantic aluminium-type balti (bucket) with hundreds of smaller vessels welded together spilling over its brim. The text at the base explaining the work reads: “Across India, stainless steel buckets, pots and cooking implements are used daily. Gupta’s great bucket from which hundreds of small vessels spill alludes to the wastage of the world’s natural resources. Bright and attractive, the shiny vessels represent the temptation of new commodities and the promise of a better future..."

Is the problem of India that of wastage of resources? It is a part of the world where ragpickers dot garbage heaps in search of things to eat and sell. Where almost anything can be sold for scrap and recycled.

We have tens of thousands of people missing in Kashmir, we have episodes of mass violence, have an intolerant ideology, Hindutva, ruling India. Ever heard of big artists taking on these subjects?

And another thing. There were no desis I could spot at the exhibition in London (they having headed to Wembley, no doubt). This is something I have noticed at many arts exhibitions, though we are quite well represented in the malls.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @aakar_amnesty.

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