Ai Weiwei makes a splash in Los Angeles’ art world – Zandie Brockett
Cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard on a sunny fall day, palm fronds flashed across my sunroof just as Kanye and Kim made a brief appearance at a stoplight. It was a fitting start to a day of star-studded art hopping across three Angeleno exhibitions – Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new shows at Jeffrey Deitch’s brand new mid-city gallery, United Talent Agency (UTA)’s Beverly Hills Artist Space, and the Marciano Art Foundation, housed in the former LA Masonic temple.
Riding on the coattails of Ai Weiwei’s first Hollywood-produced feature film, Human Flow (Participant Media, 2017), the three exhibitions continue his inquiry into the global refugee crisis. As a childhood refugee himself, Ai comes from a long lineage of outspoken intellectuals. His father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, known for his literary punditry, was exiled to Xinjiang during the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Ai was just eight years old. It was then that Ai’s dissenting voice started to develop, later buttressed by his 2011 detainment by Chinese state police and his relocation to Berlin after his passport was returned to him in July 2015. Despite his distance from his motherland, and unlike many new contemporary artists in China today, Ai remains loyal to a key tenant of the Chinese avant garde: art is politics.
For the post-80s and 90s generation of young Chinese artists, the subversive socio-political discourse that once characterized the art of post-revolutionary China is faint. Instead, today, the contemporary art frequenting the walls of galleries in Beijing’s 798 art district, or in the new private museums along Shanghai’s West Bund corridor, find their politics in aesthetics. A generation raised during the digital era has cultivated an identity informed by globalization, rather than one that is inherently “Chinese” or inexorably linked to the politics of the country’s modern development. These young artists create work that explores more universal topics, such as the politics of gender and sexual identity, urban lethargy, and a post-internet world. Moreover, growing conservatism in Beijing, a city which has long served as a gathering ground for Chinese artists and intellectuals, coupled with the maturation of a marketplace for contemporary art in China, has lured younger artists away from art as politics and towards art as profession.
Ai remains loyal to a key tenant of the Chinese avant garde: art is politics”
This is not the case for Ai Weiwei, whose three new exhibitions are inundated with conspicuous messages about injustices against the freedom, dignity and equity of those entangled in refugee crises. Taking center stage is his new work at the Marciano Art Foundation, Life Cycle (2018). This installation depicts the rubber dinghies that refugees used in their flight to Europe and who landed in locations like Lesbos, a site where much of Human Flow was filmed. Using traditional Chinese kite-making techniques, he replaces the boat’s PVC rubber with bamboo, a material that represents uprightness, tenacity and modesty in classical Chinese culture. Perhaps Ai sees himself as a metaphorical Robin Hood, restoring these characteristics to the refugees from whom they have been robbed.
Ai also uses bamboo to present a dazzling collage of mythic creatures from the 4th century BC Chinese folktale Classic of the Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing). This compendium records the features of fantastical and natural geographies during China’s Warring States period. Fittingly, the vignettes fit together with motifs from Ai’s earlier works – bicycles, alpacas, passports – to make us contemplate the human geographies of our own modernity. Like the Shanhaijing, Life Cycle is a descriptive force that allows us to consider how the perpetual and rampant transformation of people, politics, ideologies and imaginations in our contemporary world both reflect and inform our memories and identities, and our inherent right to articulate both.
Also new to Ai’s work on the refugee crisis are a series of wallpapers that line the walls of the Deitch and UTA exhibition halls. For Deitch’s inaugural exhibition, Twitter birds and surveillance cameras are kaleidoscoped into a glitzy and gold motif fit for the gilded corridors of Trump’s aureate latrine. At UTA, meanwhile, an assemblage of middle fingers spirals into a pattern of linked arms, sprouting from sockets that resemble half-brains, half-deformed embryos. In classic Ai Weiwei satire, the artist prods at the misguided arms race that is crippling those impervious to current geopolitical systems of governance. In the adjacent room is a wallpaper designed in fifth-century Athenian pottery fashion, but with linear narratives depicting storm trooper-esque military brigades fighting a guerrilla-style militia, with Black Hawk helicopters hovering over ruined cities and makeshift tents, and rows of refugees marching not two by two, but six by six, towards safety – stuck in broken a system of injustice without a foreseeable end. These motifs also appear on Chinese porcelain plates and urns, appropriating the classical blue and red glaze of Qing Dynasty ceramics.
Seeing all three exhibitions back-to-back gave me the same sinister feeling of my chance celebrity encounter, one in which I was enamored (or perhaps blinded) by the realization that these individuals really exist, and are not just pixels in a digital artifice. The moment of spectacle made me question not just the phenomenon of celebrity, but my flash of wonderment for buying into Hollywood hoopla, just as Ai Weiwei’s hype precedes his art.
This is not to say that Ai’s new exhibitions are not germane to our increasingly surveilled world. These shows, along with the film Human Flow, highlight a grave crisis that is often buried as soon as the media shifts its attention. Ai Weiwei works to keep the pressure high in the cooker. Nevertheless, his overt political messaging felt a little too pronounced, too ostentatious, too marketable – especially when considering the setting of these exhibitions in Hollywood’s backyard, the up-and-coming playground of the global art world. According to some critics, Ai Weiwei purportedly surrendered making art about China in exchange for his passport – why else would he be incessantly focused on the Middle East-Europe refugee crisis, and not the domestic migrant crisis that hundreds of millions of Chinese currently face and is rarely, if not ever, depicted by art or the media?
Especially in today’s America, politics sells. While younger Chinese artists are moving away from political art-making, Ai Weiwei is most definitely not. Viewing his new shows, I couldn’t help but wonder if Ai’s political spectacle has blinded us to another commercial ploy. ∎