Ai Weiwei: Globalisation and Chinese Material Histories 

Written by Ciara Steggerda

I will discuss the historical effect of globalisation on materiality in Asian art with reference to the practice of Ai Weiwei. I will offer a brief history of trade and globalisation between Asia and Western Europe, and the subsequent desire for the exotic. I will then discuss how this impacts perceptions of materiality in Ai’s work, with reference to Coloured Vases (2006), Sunflower Seeds (2010) and Study of Perspective (1995-2003). I would like to acknowledge that I come from an European/Australian background, and as such I have limited understanding on Asian cultural experiences and issues.

The development of commercial routes between Asia and Europe during the 1600’s was crucial for the globalisation of trade (De-Vries 2010). This cross continental trade relationship has informed the histories and connotations of materials. Tracking these materials through time informs their use in the contemporary art landscape and enables a more nuanced understanding of their meanings. Asian and Western art have influenced each other since globalisation, as it enabled art and literature to be distributed on a larger scale (Carter 2017). During this early trading period, commonly exported types of goods included Chinese wallpaper, ceramics, carved ivory and lacquer furniture (Clifford et al. 2018). The most dominant forces in this economy were the Dutch, French and English East India Trading Companies (Gaastra 1997). The East India Trading companies had been given the authority by their respective local governments to trade, wage war and colonise at their own discretion (Bown 2009). This created economic relationships between the countries fraught with power imbalances and exploitation. These conditions were highly profitable for the Western European traders. Due to exclusive and expensive trading conditions, the most visible form of wealth in European society was to own artefacts from the far east (Fin and Smith 2018). Chinese wallpaper was colloquially known as ‘India hangings’, reflecting the attraction to the exotic, void of interest in its cultural origins (Clifford et al. 2018). The sense of exclusivity fueled the demand for Asian imported goods. Western stereotypes of an unchanging, traditional and exotic Asia, separate from contemporary art (Antionette and Turner 2014). Artists are presently still contending with this Eurocentric focus on art history, which implicates Asian art as a subcategory.

These histories are still echoed in today's global art landscape, in the institutional conservatism and whiteness (Butler 2017). Modern diversity politics can still unwittingly reiterate this historical power dynamic of foreign art being used as an indication of worldliness in upper class art audiences (Butler 2017). An example of this institutional whiteness is the prevalence of gallery curators and collectors with anthropological training backgrounds (Helg 2017). Mirjam Shatanawi, an established African and Asian history scholar, has long found art history treats non-Western contemporary art as derivative of Western art, deeming it inauthentic (2009). These attitudes illuminate how in many ways, the art world is stuck in the past, and is still therefore heavily influenced and informed by colonial histories. As society aims to profit from the "rising Asia," the current trendiness surrounding Asian art recalls previous Western obsession with the exotic (Lo 2014). This in turn creates pressure for non-white artists to perform an exotic identity for a white audience, which can frequently feel reductive (Butler 2017). In the face of overwhelmingly Western influence, Chinese visual art practitioners attempt to reconcile both histories and create a modern Chinese aesthetic (Chumley 2016). Ai Weiwei addresses this Western fascination with the exotic through reappropriating historically loaded materials.

Ai Weiwei is a prominent contemporary Chinese artist and activist. His work addresses the erosion of Chinese cultural and material histories. His approach to art is direct and confrontational. In 1958, his father was stripped of his Communist Party membership and was exiled to Xinjiang with Ai (Zhang 2020). Before falling out of favour with Mao Zedong, his father Ai Qing was a prolific and politically engaged poet (Shariatmadari 2021). His family was uprooted and relocated to a remote region of north-west China, where they had to endure difficult living conditions in a dugout. They were unable to return to Beijing until after the Cultural Revolution. When questioned by Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari, Ai asserted that growing up in poverty had influenced his understanding of humanity's vulnerability (2021). In his adult life, he was detained by the Chinese Communist government for over 2 months for alleged tax evasion (Willis 2015). Ai later went on to study at the Beijing Film Academy and Parsons in New York. He started out painting but soon turned to sculpture after being inspired by the ready-made pieces of French artist Marcel Duchamp (Zhang 2020). Due to his famous father and global education, Ai acts as a kind of middleman between the Western public and the Chinese contemporary art scene (Cheng 2011). From later living in Germany Ai found Western society was still haunted by its authoritarian past in its political and cultural behaviours (Sackur 2020).

In Ai’s artwork Coloured Vases 2006, he dipped ancient Chinese pots into various colours of stark industrial paint, contrasting concepts of cultural destruction and preservation. The gaps in the paint reveal the pot’s original painted adornments. Being displayed in a clustered group also alters the viewer's perception of the pot's individuality and value. The use of historical urns in Ai’s practice comment on mass production and the preservation of material histories. Although the vases are not physically destroyed, their surfaces are forever altered and concealed by the bright industrial paint. Ai liberates these pots from ethnographic museum confinement, and redefines them as contemporary art objects. This draws attention to the uncomfortable relationship between art, art history, and anthropology (Helg 2017). The works' aesthetic disobedience creates a sense of cynicism by breaching social standards of honouring cultural artefacts (Neufeld 2015). Here, his inspiration from Duchamp is obvious. The display of these pots in European and Australian galleries furthers the sense of cynicism, by referencing the historical exportation of pottery to Western tastes. These pots echo writer Lily Chumley’s concept of “un-Chinese”, things that are neither clearly local or foreign (2016). Chumley uses this to articulate the ways in which globalisation has altered the Chinese cultural identity. There are also interesting implications created by these transformed pots displayed in western art galleries, without framing them as anachronistic. Ai unsettles the value of these pots, altering their subjective authenticity.

Sunflower Seeds 2010 by Ai Weiwei employs traditional porcelain techniques to explore the materiality of mass production. The work comprises 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds spread across the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. The hours of labour that went into this piece are brought to the forefront by the sheer mass of the seeds, as black and white stripes accumulate to a grey cluster. Ai believed the impact of this work came from its vastness, the extreme effort taken to cater to Western export (2010). Each seed has been hand painted by one of the 1600 artisans in Jingdezhen over five years making each seed unique. This work also materially benefited the inhabitants of Jingdezhen providing them with stable pay and employment for years. Commenting on mass production, Ai said that in the past the West enjoyed the benefits of cheap labour and production from China (Sackur 2020). In an interview with Tate Modern gallery Ai is shown at the site of the production, where the materials for the porcelain were mined and then ground using pre-industrial techniques (2010). The sunflower seed was a symbol typical of Chairman Mao’s rule, their numerousness represents socialist notions of collectivism. The seeds also represent the potential of growth, though these stone seeds will never flower. The work has been described as having a terrifying sense of homogeneity (Zhang 2020). At the opening, visitors could walk through the installation, crushing the sunflower seeds underfoot. However this soon stopped because of the porcelain dust that resulted from the crushed seeds. The discomfort felt from walking on these sunflower seeds highlights how the work of skilled artisans tends to be undervalued. This work emphasises the process of its making over its aesthetics.

Study of Perspective (1995-2003) is a photo series consisting of Ai replicating typical tourist photos, replacing the smiling subject with his middle finger. This crude gesture simplistically summates his disdain for authority. Some of the photos on this series are unfocused, emphasising the artist's perspective and unstructured approach. Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square shows Ai's middle finger centred in front of Tiananmen square, with the gates to the forbidden city in the background, referencing the Tiananmen square massacre of 1989. In Study of Perspective – Monda Lisa he replicates this gesture in front of the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous European tourist attractions. The instantaneous nature of photography contrasts the time, tools and skilled labour he utilised in works like Sunflower Seeds. His use of documentative photography also links back to ethnographic records of art and culture, reclaiming the materiality. Photography as an artistic medium has become democratised through developments in technology, and in the past has struggled to be acknowledged as a fine art form (Sankey 2014). Though his work is often viewed as a criticism of the Chinese Government, his observations can be just as applicable to corruption of freedom of speech and privacy present in American, European and Commonwealth countries. His work being viewed as purely related to Chinese politics is reminiscent of historical European othering of Asian culture. According to Ai Weiwei, democracy does not exist in Western politics, because of corporate and class influences (Guru-Murthy 2022). Ai’s  work illustrates that the democracy that these countries pride themselves on is deeply intertwined with capitalist interests and other forms of corruption.  Ai has voiced that Europe's lack of action to hold China accountable, such as in the genoside of Uyghur Muslims, contributes to its complicity in these injustices (Guru-Murthy 2022). In this way, he argues that the West is not entitled to the moral high ground. His middle finger is equally directed towards Western Governments for their hypocritical policies.  

Informed by historical contexts, Ai Weiwei's practice reflects contemporary issues. In his practice he contrasts ideas of mass production and artisanal craft through his use of historically informed materiality. Ai’s aestheticisation of his political beliefs aims to influence policy making (Heinrichs 2021). Ai’s works are often read as dissident of the Chinese Communist government, when his criticisms apply just as poignantly to Western Governments. Assumptions of Asian art being “derivative”(Shatanawi 2009), manifest in Ai’s work through this sidelining of his politics as separate from the rest of the world. This assumption is often made due to the historical othering of Asian art, and how it is often defined as a subcategory of art through a Eurocentric lens.  

Figure 1: Ai Weiwei (2006) Colored Vases [earthenware, synthetic polymer paint], Ai Weiwei Studio, Artsy website, viewed 15 September 2022.

Figure 2: Ai Weiwei (2010) Sunflower Seeds [porcelain], Tate Modern Museum website, viewed 15 September 2022.

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