Beyond Buildings


The Power of Ai Weiwei

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The arrest and detention of artist and architect Ai Weiwei makes you realize how powerless we are, despite the reach of social media, in the face of totalitarian state oppression. Several months ago, I wrote some skeptical comments about the boom market in China and the lack of quality designs by American architects working there. This latest development makes you wonder whether we should be there at all. But what can we do about this situation? The sad answer, I am afraid, is very little. But Ai Weiwei's art remains as a reminder of the power to confront the state in form and image.


I first met Ai when I was summoned to a dinner in a small restaurant he had designed. I marveled at the complexity and power of its simple forms, and at his wit and knowledge. I had seen some of this provocative early works, such as the one where he dropped a Ming-era vase and documented its destruction. I had seen his installations in various museums. I also knew of his documenting of the changes taking place in Beijing through video and photography, and his reuse of fragments from old temples to make ironic maps of China. He was at the time at work on the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium, which he co-designed with Herzog & de Meuron. Here was an artist who could work his alchemy on everything from buildings to photographs to scraps of wood, making us see a universe of meaning in each piece he produced.


Ai continued this collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron in an installation he created for the Venice Biennale he directed in 2008. Last year, we decided to bring a survey of his work, organized by the Mori Art Museum, to Cincinnati. I am sorry to say we had to cancel the exhibition because of funding difficulties, but I continue to follow the work of this man who seems to wring meaning, irony, and beauty out of his work. All the while, he was also campaigning for human rights, trying to help the victims of the earthquake two years ago, and tweeting about injustices in China.


Many of us marveled that he got away with his activism for so long, and we were told it was because of both his international stature and the fact that his father had been one of China's most famous and beloved poets. Truth be told, I also came to believe that perhaps the Chinese state was changing. It is so easy to forget, when you travel there, that it is a totalitarian entity. I have had quite frank political discussions with both artists and architects and local politicians. The big cities now operate in such a way that you move through them with the same speed and seeming freedom as you do in an large city anywhere in the world. The contemporary art and architecture scenes in Beijing and Shanghai are among the most lively and stimulating anywhere in the world. About the only thing that reminds you of the limits to all this, other than the haze of pollution that surrounds much of this art and architecture, are the error messages you encounter when trying to access websites, some of them seemingly innocuous, from your hotel room.


Then you would hear of Ai being beaten by policemen, his studio being leveled, and his not being able to board flights, but he kept going, continually testing the limits. For all his activism, his art and architecture has had, I think, a deeper meaning and effect. It questioned China's traditions and myths, its self-image and its ambitions. Through its loving recuperation and reuse of old forms and materials, which he then spun into seemingly useless constructions and wry commentaries (a Ming vase also received a Coca-Cola logo, photographs he took of the stadium were framed in salvaged wood in the shape of the map of China), he offered a critical commentary not so much on the current political system as on the way the whole country thought of itself, its past, and its future.


Now that he has disappeared into the hole of China's repression, what are we to do? We can tweet and Facebook our protests, we can even refuse to work in China, but what influence can we have? We cannot stop buying Chinese goods, and ultimately the Chinese economy and culture are too large to ignore—it is not like boycotting South Africa or Cuba. We can only hope that Ai Weiwei's voice and art will be too powerful for the government to contain. What he is made is out there, and will continue to be shown. That is the power of art and architecture: in its silence and indirection, it remains, reminds, rebukes, and offers an alternative to both visible and invisible repression. We should show and celebrate that work, continue to protest, and hope that someday soon the corrosive effects of art will help break down the invisible monolith of power. In a concrete manner, we should hope and work in any way we can for this great artist's immediate release.


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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.