The West is morbidly fascinated with the East. Our ignorance projects a society that is steeped in repression. Chinese adventures in Africa alarm me with their thoughtless exploitation of resources. Imagine proposing to build a highway through the Serengeti Migration Route!! Made fearful of communism and repressive regimes, we fail to recognize the repression and expansionism in our own society.

Ai Weiwei is in a unique position politically, geographically and artistically. His father, the poet Ai Qing was accused of being a ‘Rightist’ and consigned with his family to the labour camps in the remote Xinjiang region. Returning to Beijing after Mao’s death, Ai studied film at the Beijing Film Academy (1978) then relocated to New York (1981-1993). He returned to China for familial reasons and became a bridge. Unfortunately, he suffered further suppression from the authorities, ignorant that he has become a cultural commodity to rival Warhol. Political censor only augments his popularity.

The retrospective exhibition According to What? at the AGO, is primarily about the Ai Weiwei brand. Anything he touches is ‘packaged’ and the ‘souvenir shop’ is integrated within the exhibition. However, it’s necessary to appreciate that his ‘politics’ have different emphases in China and the West.

Initially Ai used a blog to express his opinion until the Chinese authorities shut it down whereupon he took to Twitter. The authorities are sensitive to any criticism and overreact ludicrously. Then a devastating earthquake occurred that exposed construction deficiencies in school buildings, leading to 70 000 deaths and subsequent state censorship of information, sparked Ai Weiwei’s ‘Citizen’s Investigation’. Along with volunteers, he publicized and documented 5000 names of school children, displayed as a huge chart in this exhibition. He also straightened tons of the rebar responsible for the building’s collapse, which lies like a memorial on the gallery floor.

In China, Ai collaborates with other dissident artists, producing literature and trying to improve things, while receiving a few documented blows to the head from policemen. Impossible to express oneself freely, Ai strategizes to force accountability from the authorities, becoming a thorn in their side by demanding due process. He documents official responses then publicizes the documents, thus causing embarrassment. He also engages Chinese people in uplifting ways, initiating use of modern technology or employment of people in the Jingdezhen city to create porcelain pieces like the Sunflower Seeds and River Crabs.

There are two aspects to his vision. One is his relationship with China, both political and nationalistic. Then there is his artistic persona that the West consumes. In this exhibition, there is an opportunity for viewers to record their ideas on democracy and individual freedom, which gets relayed. Groups of schoolgirls did ‘Selfies’, eulogizing on the importance of individual freedom. No one questioned the concept of individuality or whether we are indeed free.

Marcel Duchamp once said: “There is no solution because there is no problem”, advocating an aesthetic founded on the beauty of indifference. He took an apolitical stance. Ai Weiwei echoes Duchamp’s disregard for art, adding that he just has ideas and is quite content for others to produce his art. He asserts that everything is inherently political but in truth there are degrees of activism, as exemplified by Joseph Beuys who invented a new system of social democracy.

Ai references entire styles from Pop Art, Neo-Dada, Minimalism to Conceptualism as ‘readymades’ but invests them with Chinese content. Ancient dynasty vases are desecrated with coca cola signage, dunking in industrial paint or dropped thus exposing our system of valorising objects. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel is echoed in Forever, an installation of joined bicycle frames. Ancient Chinese joinery techniques destroyed during the revolution are resuscitated. Ai nods humorously to Jasper Johns in Chateau Laffite, Chinese shoes wrapped around a wine bottle, or Moon Chest, the ten large wooden trunks with holes strategically cut to allow the viewer to ‘see the moon in all its manifestations’.

As an artist working outside the system in China, Ai Weiwei is vital. Whilst respecting his suffering through repression, I see creativity as a biological attribute that can re-imagine our social existence. To me this exhibition presents the artist as a political activist yet the works seemed all-too-familiar, like looking at oneself through an ornate Chinese mirror, with Ai smiling in the background. 

AGO, Toronto
August 17 – October 27, 2013