, an installation by Ai Weiwei
(Beijing, 1957) for the Unilever Series
at Tate Modern in London, is a good opportunity to reflect on what it means today to be an artist in China. An expanse of porcelain sunflower seeds occupies the 1000 square-meter Turbine Hall : over 100,000 pieces have been hand-painted by more than 1600 employees coming from the Chinese town of Jingdezhen, an ancient imperial porcelain production centre. Sunflower Seeds
symbolize for Ai Weiwei those millions of Chinese who suffered under famine conditions during the Mao Zedong Government. The artist also recalls that exchanging seeds in China, food that is commonly eaten as a snack, also represents a gesture of kindness, compassion and sharing. The seeds, apparently identical but actual each unique, is an open reference to the indistinct mass of Chinese workers employed in the “made in China” industry and alludes to the possibility, for each individual, to find redemption through the knowledge of their own culture and the power of number.
China, the leading country in the world economy, is also dictating laws on the art market. Nevertheless, apart from the commercial strength of Chinese artworks, what about the politically committed intelligentsia
which includes Ai Weiwei? Beijing and Shanghai are constant references in the contemporary world, from New York to London auctions passing through festivals around the globe. It is no coincidence that we talk about Ai Weiwei; in addition to being one of the international scene’s protagonists, he is also one of the major examples of what happens within a country where shadows of cultural revolution still weigh heavily.
The difficulty for free expression in the People’s Republic was evident from the times of the famous show Fuck Off,
co-curated by Ai Weiwei with Feng Boyl. In 2000 it launched a new generation of Chinese artists at Shanghai Biennale
, that was closed prematurely when it was severely censored by the Government. The point is this: without digressing from a current mark which also is in line with the ideas of the curator appointed for the next Biennale di Venezia
: what is the role of contemporary art? If the globalised world facilitates exchanges (including intellectual) between countries, why are the complaints within the individual States in many cases still a major obstaclesto overcome? We would also ask if the artist still holds the privileged position that has guaranteed full freedom of expression for centuries. Let’s think about the trial of Paolo Caliari Veronese
at the Inquisition Tribunal; let’s remember Nuremberg trials involving Leni Riefenstahl
. The same acquittal which both have obtained, by virtue of the fact that art aesthetic parameters follows the explication of being super partes
in worldly matters, the same is not granted in China in 2010. Since the 1980s, it seems that the Government still has not really opened the way to free movement of thought. Perhaps the most glaring example is that of the poet Liu Xiaobo
who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his battle for national human rights. He wasn’t even able to collect it because he is currently imprisoned, sentenced to eleven years on charges of betrayal of the Government. Neither have his delegations nor legal guardians been able to do so.
The same process applied to Ai Qing
, Ai Weiwei’s father, also a poet, who was judged as a dissident and had been exiled for twenty years to do "field work". A similar fate is happening to Ai Weiwei who, after years of complaints and attacks on his person, found himself arrested after a spurious dispute with the Government. What better way to communicate with the outside world if not through art? But this must be done with a wink and a smile, as Ai Weiwei recalls, in order to attract attention. This idea was expressed in the show The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art
exposed at Saatchi Gallery in 2009 which involved many of the artists taking part in the collective Fuck Off
, characterized by a certain complacency towards the Western market and an adjustment to certain aesthetic codes which are now out of date here. But if from the content point of view the the desire to denounce was not lacking, this western style indicates that, in addition to the artists’ common need to submit to the market laws, there is also an attempt to appeal for help to the West using communicative codes that belong to our media culture, so different from the Eastern one.
London has always represented the symbol of freedom of thought and apparently is still identified as privileged by intellectuals. Ai Weiwei proves it precisely, since he has appealed to British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in China on a business visit, asking him to publicly denounce the fiction and the corruption of China’s democratic Government. Unfortunately economics and morality can not always be reconciled. Never published in China and censored by the Government over the Web, Ai Weiwei’s ideas have been ignored by Cameron, too busy shaking hands with the superpowerful.