This past Sunday, one of four Ai Weiwei summer exhibitions closed quietly in a tiny gallery named Magician Space in Beijing’s 798 arts district. Perhaps shocking to some, for an artist who is listed as one of the world’s top five living artists, these four simultaneous August exhibitions represent Ai’s first solo shows in his home country (China), where he continues to live and work. Not one to think small, he went for four at once.
As the sun set on “AB Blood Type,” Mr. Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Way Way” for those who haven’t yet caught on to the title of this article), was nowhere to be seen. For the first time since his 2011 incident with the authorities, the government had provided the celebrity artist with his passport, ensuring he would not be around to perform any closing political stunts (or, should we say, “conceptual art”?).
Like many foreign artists living in China, my reaction to Mr. “I”’s self-focused shenanigans are mixed. In 2012, on a chance visit to San Diego for a conference, I happened to peer into a darkened, closed gallery near the Santa Fe train depot and noticed a zodiac of animal heads, bronze replicas of the figures I had just seen at the Old Summer Palace, out near where I happened to be living at the time. Of course, it was the work of Ai Weiwei. I rolled my eyes. Seeing these replicas did little for me in the given context. Mr. I Get My Way was trading on some simple tricks, I pondered as I kept walking through the non-polluted streets. First, he was the one artist who appeared to be standing up to the Party while still residing in China, giving all the freedom of expression proponents a face to latch onto to prove their point/pin their hopes on . Second, he had a relatively easy name to pronounce and remember, compared to other artists. Third, copies, copies, copies. If Andy Warhol could do it with Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe portraits, certainly the double-edged irony of a Chinese copy-artist in a world that loves to make fun of Chinese copy-cats was more hipster than hipster. In sum, Ai Weiwei gets it. He gets how to play the art game.
Fast forward to February 2015. I was away from China for two weeks, attending another conference, this time in Barcelona. Just off Las Ramblas was a large exhibit by our Chinese Warhol, covering his Sichuan Earthquake activism art, an artistic reproduction of the physical torture he faced by investigative forces, some pieced mocking the subsequent surveillance attempts, and other art that basically gave the finger to the Party. At that very moment, friends of mine were being forced out of China by the same friendly security agents featured in Ai’s work. I wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my best friend for the past eight years, someone who had journeyed with me from Egypt to the US to Kosovo and all the way to China. If, that is, I was even allowed back in? For the first time, I got it. It was the best show I had seen in ages. I fell in love with Ai’s work that day.
Or did I? Back in Beijing in the 798 arts district this past weekend, I wandered through 3 of his 4 solo shows, feeling largely uninspired. There was a large reconstructed temple in one, metal grass in another. Some black and white textual fliers were sitting in a corner. The English versions had run out; I skimmed the Chinese, not expecting much. There was nothing written on the walls discussing the concept behind this “concept art.” The video of the in-gallery temple reconstruction scrolling in a dark room didn’t even feature Ai (at least not the part I stood and watched). I wondered how much he even paid the workers. Rumors abound about his American volunteer art slaves out in Caochangdi, though I don’t really feel sorry for them. In exchange for their servitude, many an artist has gotten a chance to snap a selfie with the living legend. A selfie these days is worth more than a thousand words; it’s worth a thousand “likes.”
The “AB Blood Type” exhibit that locked its doors for the last time as I sipped a cold beverage at a gallery café with my summer art buddy Natalie featured an identical mold of grass (though now rendered in metal) to the one on display in Spain this past winter. In Barcelona, however, the exhibit notes clearly described the intentional play on the Chinese word for grass (cao—aka F-you). But, even Beijing’s English language ex-pat weeklies covering the four solo shows said nothing about this specific reference. The closest they got was to say the exhibit as a whole represents “an approach undertaken with an irreverent, often inordinate attitude, and underscored by a profound joy in puns and double-entendres.” I snap another photo to remember I was there. Otherwise, maybe I would even forget this seemingly unremarkable display. Anyway, I like the yellow walls. Is it a play on the Chinese euphemism for porn? I’m not sure, the reference materials don’t say.
Word play is a way of life in China. Whether you are trying to ensure your latest sext isn’t blocked from making its way to your would-be one-night-stand, or you actually can’t refrain from wondering whether that self-immolation you saw in the T-squared this morning might relate to changes happening in TXIXBXEXT, dancing along the moving fine grey line in the world’s biggest economy is the only way to get by and still be getting some.
Is today’s Chairman of Chinese art playing us or is he simply playing the system? Regardless, isn’t that, in itself, a brilliant commentary on the state of contemporary art, and especially investment art à la Hirst?
Does the difference even matter?
In the end I think I Way Way Gets it, do you?