Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has hit the headlines once again because at an exhibition of his work in Miami a disgruntled Florida artist, Maximo Caminero, seized one of AWW’s jars – a group of which were a single exhibit – and smashed it on the ground. Caminero was protesting because he felt that the gallery should show the work of local artists and not just the work of global art ‘stars’.
AWW has called it ‘an act of vandalism’, but hang on a minute… wasn’t it AWW who kick started his own artistic fame by making a video of himself smashing a 2000 year old Han dynasty vase?
And aren’t the vases on display in his Miami exhibition also ancient Chinese porcelain vases which he* has covered in paint? something that could be likened to an act of cultural and historic vandalism in itself?
Pot calling Kettle springs to mind.
If I see one more article in the British or American press that calls Ai Wei Wei ‘the’ leading Chinese artist, I think I will scream. On the one hand it is lazy journalism, and on the other hand it is just plain wrong. AWW is certainly a prominent Chinese artist, and has produced some intriguing work which may stand the test of time – but ‘THE’ leading artist? I don’t think so.
China is a massive country, bigger than the whole of Europe, and has hundreds of extraordinarily good artists, many of whom are far more famous/admired/sought-after than AWW is in the art world over here. But they are artists first and foremost. They are not maverick, well-connected, self-publicists, and the western media do not really bother to cover them and their works.
He can speak English well thanks to the 12 years he lived in the USA, which makes interviewing him much easier than other artists. Writing about AWW is ideal from a western journalist’s point of view because he gives good copy…he is continually coming up with new things to keep himself in the public eye abroad.
Not long ago he collaborated with Elton John on an album of Heavy Metal music, some of the lyrics being critical of China, and it had huge publicity abroad before anyone had even heard a single track and decided whether it was brilliant or pants. Subsequently it seems to have vanished without trace. It had huge publicity here in China too and was all over the social media – did the Chinese government attempt to censor him or shut it down to silence him – they did not.
To top it all off, and make this cultivated persona of a brave, down-trodden dissident impregnable, a play about him opened in London (in Hampstead naturally) “ #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei”, purporting to be a dramatization of his arrest and interrogation in 2011. The playwright, Howard Benton, had based his drama on conversations he had with – guess who – Ai Wei Wei himself. So objective it was not. Factually accurate, who knows? Anyway, it all helped keep the AWW publicity merry-go-round turning, and bolstered his overseas image.
The chattering classes of London and New York and now Miami – embrace AWW because it makes them feel good; they get a frisson of self-righteousness because they are ‘supporting’ a simple artist who has taken on the might of a totalitarian state. Hmm.., he’s hardly a butterfly being broken upon a wheel.
I suspect if he really, really wanted to leave China and live elsewhere the state would wave him good bye with relief. Unless of course they think it better to have him here, to prove their point that dissidents are narcissists, more attuned to the whims of foreign admirers than to the interests of their own people (to paraphrase Matt Schiavenza writing in a recent edition of The Atlantic).
AWW certainly manages to suck the oxygen of publicity away from true dissidents who languish in prison and are never heard from for years on end.
* His paid minions actually painted them as he never makes any of his own works. Never-the-less he is happy to allow people to say that ‘he’ designed the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics when it was actually designed by the architects Herzog & deMeuron and he was merely an artistic advisor.