I am trying to think how to explain to my students the notion of virtues. Not as behaviour, or what people do… but as traits of character, guidelines that can help us to live a good life and a beautiful life. Virtues are part of the art of living, of the bridges between ethics and aesthetics, and most importantly having some sort of alignment with ourselves, our communities and our planet. In this regard, art and some artists have lots to teach in living a virtuous life, being true to oneself and pursue an ethical and just path.
The Art of Ai Weiwei is a lesson about virtues and transformation. It is a journey of poetry and protest in the twitter era, it is humorous and brave, it is patient and collective, it is fragile and monumental. The major exhibition of this artist in Royal Academy is a real eye opener in terms of the political implications of art in the modern era and the role of art in responding to pressing issues on freedom, tradition and respect.
Ai Weiwei is essentially a Chinese artist, his heart and soul are imprinted with the great country… its contours, its maps, its history, its tragedies, its glory. His work “recycles” salvaged materials, the traces of a glorious past that is rapidly destroyed in the name of “development” and “progress”. His work is political, playful and symbolic. The first rooms of the exhibition re-create traditional objects into playful mutations, yet keeping the artisan labour and care. This type of work follows on Duchamp’s ready made’s, but alsoit shows the artist’s fascination with those objects with history. A collection of 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty recovered from a demolished palace are playfully floating against each other in the work “Grapes” of 2010. Similarly, the work Kipper/Transcience is a structure of stoked wood, with beautiful exemplars of antique lacquered furniture, the archs and the ornament of former palaces, destroyed or demolished to make room to modernity.
But his use of the ready made objects also touches on responsiblity and accountability. One of the most poignant works presented in the exhibition is a room filled with iron bars, thousands of iron bars recovered from the Sichuan earthquake which destroyed buildings and took the lives of 90000 people and almost 11 million people homeless. It is said that the shoddy quality of the materials used in the buildings caused the most of the tragedy; worst of all, there was not any attempt at identifying the thousands of children death by the earthquake. The iron left from the rubble was resold, and only unsaleable twisted bars and rubble was left: Ai Weiwei and his team, collected the crumpled bars and straight them one by one, by hand, hammering each of them to its original shape. It is a physical act of straightening, of putting things right, an exorcism of the rage and powerlessness regarding the lack care from officials.
At the same time, Ai Weiwei used his blog to ask uncomfortable yet urgent questions: how many people died, who died, who is responsible, who is accountable, what is the value of human lives? The artist posted on his blog whatever information uncovered by a group of volunteers and ultimately compiled a list of 5912 names of children death in the earthquake. This list is exhibited alongside the iron bars. It is poignant, it is huge, it is tragic… and still unresolved. The artist declared: “This investigation will be remembered for generations as the first civil rights activity in China. So, to me, that is art. it directly affects people’s feelings and their living conditions, their freedom and how they look at the world”.
But this courage was heavily punished. For instance, just before the Sichuan situation, the artist had been approached by the city of Shanghai to build a studio in the new cultural district of the city. After lots of hesitation he finally accepted and designed a spacious yet simple building with a peaceful central courtyard, in the style of monasteries and artisan houses. Once it was completed, he received a communication saying that the studio had allegedly failed to comply with building regulations, thus was going to be demolished. Ai Weiwei reacted through twitter inviting people to join him for a feast of river crabs, as a feast for the demolition of the studio. But instead of hosting his own party, the artist was confined to house arrest, while almost 800 guests enjoyed the party. Later, the artist and his team crafted in porcelain the 10000 rivers crabs “He Xien” eaten in the banquet. The meaning is much profound as the Royal Academy catalogue explains:
The world “He Xien” means ‘river crab’ but it is also homonym with the Chinese word for “harmonious’ a key concept of the Communist Party of China’s slogan, ‘the realization of a harmonious society.’ Because of the slogan’s implicit warning against dissent, the word has come to denote censorship within Chinese society, particularly on the Internet. Ai’s river crab its representation in porcelain and Souvenir from Shanghai (2012) itself therefore stand in defiance of governmental attempts to quash individual freedom of expression. (RA, Catalogue: p. 18).
This reuse of the materials as witnesses of violence or tragedy reminds me of the work of Doris Salcedo, and her re-construction of stories using furniture, human hair and clothing. In this tradition, the artists collected the rubble and residual of the “demolished” studio and assembled in the work called “Souvenir from Shanghai” (2012) – concrete and brick rubble from the artist’s destroyed studio set in a wooden frame-. The combination of using salvaged materials and traditional artisan techniques, with the power of social media, are a powerful combination in Ai Weiwei’s art. Indeed, this exhibition is traditionally crafted, and yet, all the curation process and the coordination between his house arrest in China and his studio in Berlin, was made through Skype and twitter. For me this re-use of materials evokes a very material past, we feel like touching history and there is a re-signification of the objects that are discarded despite their inherent beauty.
The role of art is hence to unveil their beauty and value, to make aware of that past that is also present, of that transience of history and how the urgencies of the present should not ignore the value of memory and tradition. Also, handling these disused objects hold a poetic act: it is rituality and it is purification, it is recycling and it is respect. The whole process bring together fragility with monumentality; past with present; respect with humour; and it is a testament of the power of art and the magnificence of this artist and his work.
And in all of these, AiWeiwei uses his work to purify, to question and somehow these evidence a number of virtues. For example, the poignant dioramas of the last room called SACRED are testimonials of his ordeals and the violence (passive aggressive tangible/psychological) that he has had to suffer. He questions, without the spite or hatred, but as a form of offering hope; he represents some poignant moments of his life, with self-awareness and care; his art is humorous and empathetic, it is charismatic and humble. Of course, it is not my intention to talk about him as a person, but it is impossible to detach his work from his persona. Indeed, I got quite moved by the documentary of his exhibition at SkyArts (Hot Ticket, aired 17/10/2015) : it is a great lesson humility, on living in the moment, on transforming the chaotic, the uncertain and unjust into art. I just feel privileged to be living in the time of such a great person and such a virtuous artist, and I agree with him: Art Always Win!