Traditions and Histories:
Ai Weiwei

Written by Lucinda Costa

Dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei creates artworks that shine a critical lens upon China’s traditions and histories. Through his artistic practice, the viewer understands Ai’s complicated relationship to the past. Yet, it is seen that Ai also wants to preserve some parts of these histories. This essay will examine this dynamic by first studying Ai’s personal history and China’s history to provide context to his practice and his iconoclastic attitudes, delving into Ai’s activism against China’s histories to grasp his cynical view. This will be done through an analysis of Ai’s artwork Study of Perspective. Shifting then to investigate Ai’s dual wish to destroy and preserve ancient traditions, as shown through artwork Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase. And finally, the essay will analyse Ai’s complex relationship with tradition and change in China as shown through work Fragments.

Ai Weiwei has had many unfortunate dealings with the Chinese government, which shapes his critical lens on China’s political present and history. In Ai’s interview with the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) director Tony Ellwood (2015), he explains that this began in his childhood where his family was exiled to the Xinjiang Province for 16 years because his father, poet Ai Qing, was accused of being rightist. Ai returned to Beijing in 1976 and was admitted to the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 (NGV 2015). In 1979 he was part of an art group called The Stars which focussed on freedom of expression and independence and these themes are carried through in his work today. They made history when they launched an unofficial exhibition on the outside of the National Art Museum of China (NGV 2015).

Much of Ai’s formative years were during the period of the Cultural Revolution. This Revolution (1966 – 1977) was led by Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong cut China off from the outside world, shut down schools, and encouraged his Red Guards – a group of militant young people to attack anything traditional to make way for the New China (Encyclopedia Britannica 2020). Unfortunately, this also included the verbal and physical abuse of the elderly (Encyclopedia Britannica 2020). The effects of this period are still apparent; people are bitter and do not trust the government, there is a severe generational gap between those who did and did not experience this time (Encyclopedia Britannica 2020). The Cultural Revolution greatly influenced Ai’s dissident attitudes, and it is these early experiences and negative connotations that fostered Ai’s lifelong activism. The effect on his artistic practice is evident through his constant critique of China’s political ruling.

Yet while the Cultural Revolution is over, Ai claims that after “decades of effort they’ve still not made any movement in political reform” (Andelmen 2012). In Ai’s digital rants, he describes China as a place that “rejects truth, refuses change, and lack[s] spirit” (Ai 2009, p. 140); further, he explains that China controls compassion, is immoral and rejects culture and creativity (Ai 2009). This critical lens on China is expressed not only through Ai’s attitudes, but also through his artistic practice.

Ai’s opinions on China’s government are best expressed through his artwork Study of Perspective. Art editor, Anthony Pins (2014) explains how in this black and white print, Ai holds up his middle finger – a defiant gesture - to influential institutions around the world. Through using a grayscale colour palette, Ai mimics the appearance of old photos, referring to the past histories of the site. He also references the present site through a modern photo of the site itself. By including his middle finger in this piece, he activates and critiques the past and present of this work. However, this is not just a collection of protestations against each monument, but rather it shows his “ethos of resistance against corruption, tyranny and power” (Pins 2014, p. 452) that manifests across his career. In Figure 1, Ai holds up his middle finger to Tiananmen Square – a building that has housed Chinese leadership for centuries – including during the Cultural Revolution. This was also the site of a massacre in 1989 (Sorace 2014 p. 415). Post-Cultural Revolution China experienced monetary inflation and corruption (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021). This caused tens of thousands of citizens to protest for weeks at Tiananmen Square. The government brought in army troops and tanks to disperse this protest, and it is estimated that over 240 people were killed, and more were executed or imprisoned for their dissidence (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021), in an event know known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Political Science Professor Christian Sorace explains how during the Revolution, the government encouraged citizens to engage in the practice of criticism to encourage the airing of opinions (2014 p. 401). In this artwork, Ai activates this rhetoric to create a kind of irony as he uses the key practice from the Cultural Revolution to condemn China’s history and present (Sorace 2014 p. 401). Yet Ai preserves these historical monuments by including them in his art. This acts as a warning to future China to learn from past mistakes. In Figure 1, Ai raises his middle finger to Tiananmen Square, but in the larger body of work, Study of Perspective, he does the same to other institutions around the world that are loaded with political history and oppression (Pins 2014). He takes this opinion a step further in his work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, comprises a photographic performance of Ai dropping an ancient Han Dynasty Urn (circa 206 BC – 202AD) (Sorace 2013 p. 402) and letting it smash on the ground. The first photo is the artist holding the urn, the second photo is the urn falling, and the final photo shows the urn is shattered on the ground. These photographs are printed in black and white against a simple street background. Ai chose the grayscale colour palette, working clothes, and everyday background to contrast against the importance that is placed on the ancient urn. This enables the viewer to focus on the urn and the traditions that are being destroyed rather than anything else within the frame.

Ai often works with ceramics in his artworks due to its long history and its association with China’s cultural identity (AUAG 2010, p. 97). This allows him to make specific references to China’s histories. The Arcadia University Art Gallery (AUAG) explains that this reflects modern China’s relationship to its history, “where destruction of historical artifacts happens almost daily” (AUAG 2010 p. 33) to make way for modern China’s needs. Ai also references the destruction of traditional items that was practised during the Cultural Revolution.

Yet he destroys the urn in such a way that instils a sense of loss in the viewer (AUAG 2010, p. 53). Thus, through Ai’s destruction, he adds value to this urn. He destroys an artefact as a symbol of destroying tradition but also expresses a sense of sadness at losing this tradition (AUAG 2010). In this piece, he illustrates a duality between tradition and change. This duality also occurs in Ai’s artwork Fragments.

China’s relationship between tradition and modernity is a complicated issue that Ai explores in his artwork titled Fragments, as shown in Figure 3. Smithsonian Magazine reporter Aviva Shen (2012) describes how this installation initially appears to be aimlessly constructed, but when examined closely, the beams outline the borders of China. The tallest pole marks the location of Beijing. Ai utilised wood from ironwood pillars from the Qing dynasty (1644 -1912) temples (Shen 2012). These are held together using the ancient joinery technique of using wooden pegs and holes that slot together perfectly (Shen 2012).

Through his utilisation of ancient materials in his contemporary artworks, he explores the cultural transformations of ancient China until now. Each day China scurries towards modernisation and is struggling to “find a balance between its explosion of urban development and the preservation of the country’s rich history” (Shen 2012, para. 4). When Ai discussed this piece with Australian journalist Virginia Trioli, he speaks of sadness over losing the skills and craftsmanship of the old world without any kind of recognition. American journalist Anne Midgette (2012) discusses the sentimentality in this work as shown in the materiality of the wood, not only is it antique, but the structure is warm and welcoming, symbolising Ai’s admiration for old-world skills. Yet the wood also appears hacked at and mutilated – embodying China’s complex narrative with its histories (Midgette 2012).

As Ai reuses wood from the Qing Dynasty to create a sentimental piece, he communicates the value in old China’s craftmanship, while also critiquing modern China for destroying these traces (NGV 2012). He remarks that he is merely sentimental about the erasure of knowledge and craftsmanship and wanted to preserve this (NGV 2012). Yet this piece is key in examining Ai’s relationship to China’s traditions and histories. In comparison to Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, this piece overtly honours aspects of the past as the artist commemorates ancient Chinese wood and joinery techniques.

Ai Weiwei’s practice in relation to China’s traditions and histories is complicated and contradictory. Ai shines a sentimental value on skills from the old world. The essay opened with an examination of Ai’s personal and cultural Chinese context, which provided insight into his experiences and iconoclastic nature. This freethinking disposition and criticism of problematic pasts was explored through his photographs Study of Perspective. Then, there was an illumination on Ai’s desire to transform through Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, and the desire to preserve. In examining Fragments, it is shown that Ai is sentimental about losing the craftmanship of China’s traditions and making art to preserve these for the future. All these points have illuminated the nature of Ai’s iconoclastic practice and to also keep parts of it alive for future generations to admire.

Figure 1. Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen Square by Ai Weiwei, 1995, gelatin silver print. © Ai Weiwei Studio. No image.

Figure 2: Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 2015. Plastic on composition board. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2017. © Ai Weiwei Studio. Photo credit Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Figure 3. Fragments by Ai Weiwei, 2005, tieli (wood). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Ai Weiwei Studio. No Image. Photo credit Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

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