The first time I saw Ai Weiwei’s art, I was appalled. Almost twenty years ago, long before he became an internationally-known contemporary artist, one of my Chinese-language classmates at Qinghua University brought me to Ai’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. What I saw that afternoon remains imprinted in my mind’s eye: photographs of him giving the middle finger to monumental buildings, rows of ancient pottery casually whitewashed, and elegant Ming dynasty tables sawed in half and reattached at bizarre angles. It was not irreverence to power that bothered me; it was those last two artworks. Never having taken an art history course, and never having heard of the “readymade”, I was horrified that someone could take antiquities and destroy them. Years later, as a graduate student in Chinese history, I researched and wrote about the idea of “cultural relics”. To this day, my seminar students at Yale take one session to debate the question of who owns art and artifacts.
Ai Weiwei and his Han Dynasty urns reappear twice in the Guggenheim Museum’s current blockbuster show, Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World. In the first iteration, the earthenware has been inscribed with a red Coca-Cola logo. In the second, three photographs show Ai dropping an urn on a tiled floor: first whole, then suspended in air, and finally in pieces at his feet. Ai Weiwei is one of over seventy artists featured in the exhibit which, in the words of its curators, “presents a history of contemporary art from China and the rise of global art discourse spanning the watershed years 1989 and 2008.” In the aftermath of the Tiananmen student movement and its brutal crackdown, Chinese artists observed and processed China’s rise – its economic miracle and attendant social dislocation – culminating in an entry onto the world stage marked by the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The show has been widely anticipated for its size and scope, and for its argument that Chinese artists made contemporary art global.
Yet before Theater of the World even opened, it became mired in controversy. After descriptions of the exhibition appeared in the New York Times, protesters rallied outside of the Guggenheim and hundreds of thousands signed a change.org petition. Their object? Three artworks deemed cruel to animals: the titular Theater of the World by Huang Yong Ping, a tortoise-shell shaped cage to be filled with insects, lizards and snakes; a video entitled Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, depicting chained pit bulls on treadmills; and a video of Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference, a performance in which two pigs stamped with nonsense words mate. In the wake of the protests and subsequent threats, the Guggenheim announced that it would remove the works.
But at the exhibition’s opening, traces of the pieces remained. The tortoise cage stood quiet and empty, its bright lights illuminating emptiness. Captions on the walls described the artwork, while also including a note reiterating that “freedom of expression has always been and will remain a central value of the Guggenheim.” Next to the artist’s notebooks was a new piece of art, an Air France airsick bag inscribed with Huang Yong Ping’s response statement. In a similar way, the video screens remained on the walls, darkened in silence; notes described what “one would have seen”.
As a layman – not an art historian – I have mixed feelings about the artworks in question, the protests, and the Guggenheim’s decision. Asking friends who are artists, I’ve realized how controversial work involving animals is. It turns out that there is a genre of “animalworks”, which includes pieces far more shocking than the three excluded from Theater of the World, and which have been highly controversial in China. Other sensational art goes even further, incorporating the human body. As I learned about these, I felt even less equipped to make a judgment on ethics and art. But I confess that when I first read the New York Times description of selected works from the exhibit, it was not the animal pieces that gave me pause.
Instead, it was a video by Zhang Peili entitled Water: Standard Version from the “Cihai” Dictionary. In the work Xing Zhibin, the official Chinese evening news anchorwoman, reads aloud the definition for the word “water,” its meaninglessness paralleling her reportage on June 4, 1989, which made no mention of that day’s massacre. It was this piece – not the works with animals – that left me deeply uncomfortable. The work of social scientists must pass muster for interaction with human subjects. But here, in the work of art, Xing Zhibin had been deceived into recording that video. Indeed, the success of the piece turns in part on tricking a state mouthpiece that practices regular deception.
So it is discomfiture that leads to reflection and perhaps also realization. I will always remember Ai Weiwei and his urns, and I will always remember Zhang Peili’s Water. These pieces that I found so troubling also prompt me to think: I’ve published on cultural relics in the Cultural Revolution, and I may even incorporate these two images into my lectures on contemporary Chinese history. In a similar way, the world will remember this exhibition for what it included and for what it excised at the eleventh hour. In leaving Theater of the World empty and lighted, and in preserving the videos as silent screens, the curators consciously created their own installations.
This is most evident in the case of Huang Yong Ping’s statement on the airsick bag, now presented as a piece of art in itself. Thus the artist gets to have the final word, to ask “how many of those people [who signed the petition] have really looked at and understood this work?” Together with the empty cage, the statement condemns those who look away without first looking, a warning for the theater of our own times.
All photographs by the author
The China Channel