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2014.06.27 Fri, by Translated by: 梁舒涵
The (Continuing) Story of Ai—From Tragedy to Farce

The story of Ai (Weiwei) continues…

In recent weeks Ai Weiwei has become embroiled, yet again, in apparent controversy. Following reports of the artist’s name having been expunged entirely from the fifteenth anniversary Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA) exhibition as a result of pressure by government officials prior to its opening at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai in early May, Ai has now chosen to withdraw on his own volition three works due to be shown in an exhibition at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. Ai claims that during preparations for the show in question, “Hans van Dijk: 5,000 Names” (an exhibition celebrating the achievements of the late Dutch historian, dealer and collector of contemporary art from China, Hans van Dijk), his name was purposely omitted from a press release by the centre resulting in what he asserts is a falsifying of history. In particular, it would appear that Ai took serious umbrage at the effective airbrushing of his close collaboration with van Dijk and Frank Uytterhaegen on the development of the China Art Archive and Warehouse, an early attempt to memorialize “avant-garde” and experimental art within a state where all forms of public anti-authoritarian dissent are habitually suppressed. Ai is also reported to have called on other Chinese artists to withdraw their works from the exhibition.

Between May 23 and 25, Ai recorded a series of conversations with Philip Tinari, the lead curator at UCCA, Marianne Brouwer, the guest curator of the van Dijk exhibition, and Xue Mei, the CEO at UCCA. The conversations, transcripts of which have appeared on the hyperallergic.com website following their initial posting on Ai’s Instagram site (as well as twitter and elsewhere), show Tinari, Browuer and Xue striving unsuccessfully to placate a relentlessly accusatory Ai with explanations and justifications of their actions and decisions related to the van Dijk exhibition.

Ai Weiwei’s instagram account (screenshot)

Ai Weiwei’s instagram account (screenshot)

Ai Weiwei’s instagram account (screenshot)

Ai’s withdrawal from the van Dijk exhibition has provoked differing responses. In an open letter dated May 28, UCCA claimed that there had not been a blanket exclusion of Ai’s name from press releases and other written texts accompanying the van Dijk exhibition. Indeed, the letter asserts that Ai’s involvement in the development of contemporary art in China is clearly signposted in the exhibition, and that the inclusion of his works would have reinforced this—something which Ai himself acknowledges.

This open letter notwithstanding, some artists have spoken out publically against UCCA’s reported actions. Among them are Sun Yuan and Peng Yu best known internationally for works of the late 1990s involving violence to animals and the displaying of human corpses. Sun and Peng issued a statement on Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) describing UCCA as “dogs and slaves of officialdom” (link to weibo post) and questioning the difference between the privately financed centre and state institutions. Another artist, Cui Cancan’s voiced criticism in a rather less direct fashion, asserting personal “steadfastness to basic questions and awareness within the exhibition system” (link in a very lengthy art-ba-ba post—in Chinese—where all kinds of responses have also been reposted).

Others still have spoken out publicly against Ai, including the artist Yan Xing, who, writing on Facebook (a platform officially blocked in China) on May 27–28, claims that Ai has sought to gain market advantage by promoting himself internationally as a “heroic” dissident opposed to governmental suppression of artistic freedoms within China. Yan also claims that Ai has demanded solidarity among other Chinese artists in a suppressive authoritarian manner. Yan praises those artists who have chosen not to withdraw their works from the van Dijk exhibition for their moral courage in saying “no” to Ai. While Yan is keen to distance himself from governmental suppression of artistic freedoms in China, he also seeks to avoid “taking sides” by asserting that Ai’s actions involve a questionable alignment with Western anti-Chinese sentiment. Yan’s stated position, though highly critical of Ai, should not therefore be conflated with what he claims was a positive, politically conservative audience response to the exclusion of the artist’s name from the CCAA exhibition in Shanghai. Yan can also be understood to imply that Ai’s withdrawal from the van Dijk show amounts to an act of sensationalist opportunism rather than one of principled resistance. For want of any hard evidence one way or the other, such a view can neither be substantiated nor refuted categorically.

Ai Weiwei 艾未未

As I indicated in an earlier article for Randian, “Getting over Ai Weiwei”, which was subsequently published in revised form in the Australian journal Broadsheet in 2012 under the title “The Cult of Ai”, Ai’s position is predicated not only on humanist notions of the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, but in addition the assertion (erroneously attributed to Edmund Burke) that authoritarianism is guaranteed by our failure to speak out against it. Such sentiments are, of course, beyond general reproach. However, we should be careful not to let them pass unexamined in abstract detachment from actual material and discursive conditions.

In my earlier article for Randian, I sought to point out that official restrictions placed on Ai’s movements and freedom of speech following his indictment for tax evasion in 2011 have placed the artist in an invidious double-bind. Since his indictment, Ai has been prevented from traveling outside China and has been instructed not to make public statements critical of the Chinese government. Although Ai has transgressed the latter instruction to some degree on a number of occasions—notably through participation in the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—his criticism of the Chinese government has been noticeably less frequent and vehement. If his passport was returned, Ai could of course choose to live (Solzhenitsyn-like) in exile outside China in a Western(ized) liberal-democratic state from where he would be “free” (and almost certainly encouraged, if not expected) to launch unrestricted invective aimed at the Chinese state. However, while life in exile would no doubt cement Ai’s international reputation as a dissident, heavy restrictions on the media in China would continue to severely limit the impact of his challenge to governmental authority in that context. Moreover, given the persistence and even deepening of a by no means unreasonable anti-Western sentiment in China in recent years, it is far from clear—as Yan Xing’s posting on Facebook amply demonstrates—exactly what depth of support an exiled Ai would have there.

It should be noted that UCCA, like all public institutions engaged in the displaying of art in China, is subject to close official scrutiny as well as possible censorship. While this state of affairs is thoroughly reprehensible, it is simply not possible for an institution like UCCA to function without finding ways to manage the constant threat of suppressive state intervention. Going openly against authority in China, as Ai himself knows all too well, is almost certainly to invite unwelcome and ultimately disciplining governmental action. To function as a public institution in China and to keep the possibility of some sort of critical discourse alive is to accept the necessity in that context of a pragmatic-relativist rather than an absolutist point of view. Ai’s upbraiding of UCCA is disingenuous; it applies absolutist standards of behaviour that he has arguably failed to live up to fully himself under the threat and exercising of state violence.

My intention here in making these observations is not to issue a terminal council of despair. Critique of authority is, I would wish to assert, in spite of the restrictions that constantly surround it, a crucial aspect of contemporary life without which social development is at best atrophied and at worst always in danger of a descent into violent despotism. However, we should not run away with the mistaken view that there is such a thing as absolute freedom of expression or indeed critique. As Michel Foucault has persuasively argued, all thought and action is subject to the limiting and enabling effects of prevailing discourse. Prevailing discourse is that which is accepted as true and real at a particular place and time in a way that both serves to discipline society and promote (always self-contradictory) norms in relation to which active critical resistance can be launched—resistance which from a Derridean perspective opens up the possibility of a deconstructive displacement of authoritative meaning. Discourse therefore establishes certain contingent patterns of thought and action—règles du jeu, if you will—that shape the localized nature of complicity and resistance. This is, in general terms, no less the case in the supposedly free (neo-)liberal-democratic “West” than it is in authoritarian states such as China (the two cannot, in any case, as part of an increasingly globalized world be categorically separated). As Marcel Duchamp (an artist much admired by Ai) can be understood to have demonstrated through his constant invocations of and allusions to the game of chess—with its seemingly limitless interactive permutations within tight regulative structures—a progressive critical art is by no means immune to such pervasive discursive conditioning.

Recent events surrounding Ai’s withdrawal from the van Dijk exhibition take place in relation to what are, given his starkly absolutist view of the importance of freedom of artistic expression, a more or less predetermined array of possible positions of agreement and oppositional resistance. None of the moves in the “game” (if such a word can be used given the enduring brutality of political authoritarianism) have so far been unpredictable, whether they fall on the side of Ai or not. Even Yan Xing’s critique of Ai with its somewhat “have one’s cake and eat it” stance of not taking sides with Western or Chinese authority does not occupy a position entirely outside the oppositional discursive logic invoked by Ai—Yan in the final analysis relies on an exceptionalist position no less crudely antagonistic than the anti-Chineseness he claims to abjure. Ai’s starkly oppositional resistance to authority as well as arguments in support of or against his position amount simply to re-assertions rather than fundamental problematizations of the dialectical logic of authoritarian dominance.

We have yet to see whether any of the presently executed moves (including this one), or any still to come will sufficiently displace the prevailing authoritarian dialectic of the continuing story of Ai to take us (provisionally, at least) somewhere different. Until then it looks as though, borrowing from Marx’s injunctions in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, that events surrounding Ai are shifting ineluctably through repetition from tragedy to farce.

—Paul Gladston is director of the Center of Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham and principal editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.

Ai Weiwei’s “leg-gun” meme which has spread like wild-fire.