The Case for Ai Weiwei | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

The Case for Ai Weiwei | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

NARRATOR: In 1995,
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei photographed himself as he
picked up a 2000-year-old urn and let it smash to the ground. If we’re appalled when
cultural heritage is destroyed in the name of god
and state, how can we possibly defend Ai’s action? How can we buy a ticket to
see photos of it in a museum? How can those photos sell
for over a million dollars? How can this man be one of
the most renowned artists of our time? This is the case for Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei was born
in Beijing in 1957 to writer Gao Ying and
famed poet Ai Qing, whom communist leader Mao
Zedong initially embraced, but soon after denounced
during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1958. The family was exiled to labor
camps in remote provinces until the end of the
Cultural Revolution in 1976. They then returned to Beijing. And Ai– and by that, I
mean AI Weiwei– enrolled in Beijing Film Academy
in 1978 and co-founded a group of avant garde
artists called The Stars. In 1981, he decamped
to the US and settled in New York, where he
scraped by, hung out with his neighbor, renowned
beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and took lots and
lots of pictures. He also immersed himself in
art, studying Marcel Duchamp and considering the idea of
readymade as a way to make art. When he returned
to China in 1993, he met with a country
undergoing tremendous change. Many were still reeling from the
1989 Tienanmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. And Deng Xiaoping’s focus
on economic development had tripped off the
massive transformation of China’s cities. Ai’s urn dropping occurred
not long after his return. But his irreverence had
surfaced before that. He turned a critical eye
toward all edifices of power at home, as well as abroad. Well-versed in antiques, he knew
the value of historic objects and the symbolic power
of manipulating them. Chinese antiquities
became Ai’s raw material for a new kind of readymade,
dynamically synthesizing the clash between
reverence for the past and the irrepressible
drive toward the future, for modernization
is a mixed bag. With change, there is loss. History is erased. How can we condemn an artist
for destroying cultural heritage when his government has raised
neighborhoods and entire cities to build new roads,
buildings, giant dams, and Olympic stadiums? Ai’s work allows us to
reckon with the destruction that construction requires. But to be clear, he is more
of a creator than destroyer. He has repurposed wood
from demolished temples and transformed it into
intricate and dramatic installations. He takes a basic unit– say, an
antique stool– and multiplies it, compounds it, to
see where it takes us. History that would otherwise
be relegated to dusty shops or landfills is made strikingly,
unforgettably visible. And he has found new
uses for old techniques, hiring craftspeople adept in
ancient joinery traditions. He has enlisted the most skilled
porcelain makers in the world to demonstrate their mastery,
commissioning exquisitely made copies and objects like
watermelons, crabs, and millions and millions
of sunflower seeds. He has embraced the handmade
within an economy whose incredible growth has been
fueled by automation and mass production. He has synthesized
traditionally Chinese materials to think about the
part in relationship to the whole, the self in
relationship to the collective. “If a nation cannot face
its past,” he has said, “it has no future.” And Ai is equally
concerned with the present. In 2008, when the Sichuan
earthquake struck, he visited the region in
the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to
gather the names of the dead, addressing attempts by
authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of
schoolchildren who died because of poorly built schools. He amassed tons of twisted
rebar from the wreckage, painstakingly straightened
it, and assembled it into spare elegiac memorials. He arranged 9,000 backpacks
on the facade of the Haus der Kunst to Munich to represent
the young lives lost, spelling out a quote
from a victim’s mother. “She lived happily for
seven years in this world.” Ai has been a ceaseless,
unflagging voice for the voiceless. In 2009, he was beaten and
detained in his hotel room in Chengdu when
attempting to testify in the trial of human
rights activist Tan Zuoren. He visits with refugees
fleeing the war in Syria, organized a London walk of
compassion in their honor, covered his sculptures
with thermal blankets, and wrapped the columns
of Berlin’s concert hall with salvaged
refugee life vests. An early adherent
of social media, he’s an adamant
supporter of free speech. He reports on his
life in minute detail. He did so up until his
2011 arrest and confinement for 81 days on unfounded
tax evasion charges, as well as after. Authorities have demolished
his Shanghai studio, threatened to demolish
his Beijing studio, and forced him to
pay a tax evasion fine of 15 million yuan. He has been continually
surveilled and followed, prevented from leaving his
country, and through it all, has refused censorship within
China, as well as abroad. Not everything he
does is genius. But he remains committed to
reaching an ever wider public. His work does not sit
firmly in the realm of art, but radiates out. He’s often called an iconoclast. And an urn crusher
would certainly seem to adhere to
the definition. But there’s another way to
see Ai Weiwei, as someone who desperately wants
the cherished beliefs and institutions of China’s
past to be remembered and resuscitated. And in that sense,
as radicals go, he’s brilliantly conservative. His work is deeply rooted
in history and tradition. It is steeped in remembering,
valuing, preserving. He stands defiantly
opposed to a culture that wants to move on with
little regard for the past. He has resistance to
forgetting, to silence. His work asks us to consider
what we value, why we value it, and what we are accountable
for destroying, preserving, or transforming. He asks fundamental questions
about our human rights and responsibilities. Liberty,” he says, ‘is about our
rights to question everything.” Out of a source of
constant irritation, the oyster develops a pearl. Ai is that constant
source of irritation. And we are lucky not only
to bear witness to it, but to be called
to action by it. [MUSIC PLAYING]

100 thoughts on “The Case for Ai Weiwei | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. Your video really opened my eyes to him, especially as someone who has a strong passion for history and cultures around the world; He is the artistic devil's advocate.

  2. I thought of this vid as, "Oh… its just that other modern artist who finds stuff……etc…." but then it made me change my mind about looking at things. Dont assume…

  3. It was a great video, i never heard of Ai Weiwei before and here i am a senior citizen. I think Ai Weiwei gave alot of himself for the people of china and also did alot for them. A great man and artist!

  4. A wonderful example of how nothing is wholly good or bad.

    Ai Weiwei also brought this question to mind: Is it better for something to exist and be forgotten, or to no longer exist and be remembered?

  5. Aside from breaking someone else's antique work for a three frame photo op, I think this guy is legit. Just because the potter is anonymous doesn't mean their work means less. It seems like an odd choice, given that so many of his other works seem to draw attention to anonymity and the importance of all human life, not to mention his interest in cultural preservation.
    I'm not sure if I like the idea that he chose to straighten the rebar from the earthquake. I think the piece could have been just as potent as a jumbled pile, if not moreso because the viewer is faced with the reality that natural forces can easily turn concrete into dust and force straight iron bars into twisted wreckage, and snuff out thousands of people with effortless power.
    As an artist, I give him a thumbs up overall. He seems legit.

  6. this was so nearly a good video but the voice and speed is just too annoying. Too much relentless information without proper spacing and voicing. Drop the vocal fry and it would have been better too. Pity, as this could have been an interesting and usful introduction

  7. The irony is that all those pearls in the history of China have no exposure to the world, what the Occident remembers are just a few paintings of Japanese ukiyo-e thanks to the french impressionists, how can one remember the past without knowing it in the first place?

  8. I wonder how many people that hate the vase smashing thing would have recognized or appreciated its history before he dropped it. You go over it more thoroughly in the video, but he did a better job at preserving that historical artifact than 10,000 expertly trained historians and restorers and preservationists working around the clock ever could have.

    My only other thought about Ai Weiwei is that he's a pretty awesome (and awesomely self-aware) product of what happens when the industrial revolution and the information age happen simultaneously. It's something that's only going to happen a few times in human history: China, India, maybe africa in 15-20 years if it (and the rest of the world) survive climate change and we don't have to claw our way back to the internet after a few centuries of crushing agrarian neo-feudalism.

  9. i don’t expect you to be fluent in mandarin, but at least stick the word in google translate to see how to pronounce it properly

  10. I love Ai wei wei! He spreads humanity awareness through meaningful installations, videos, photos etc. He acknowledges situations brought upon society very deeply. His art I only understand the value and the meaning behind it! I wish I was at the sunflower seeds exhibition T_T cries I would love to meet him in person!

  11. I think he’s a great artist, but at the same time I think he’s bad since he makes ancient urns into art. But honestly, the stools are really cool.

  12. I would like to see a " the case against…" video of any fashionable artist. I mean your allowed to have an opinion of your own. right?

  13. The way this artist has zealously documented his medical recovery after the unfortunate brain hemorhage resulted from his premeditated political/cultural stunt is a clear display of his cynical sentiment ; he is cowardly exploiting gaps between how things try to appear and how they really are … if having an ironic stance towards whatever vase that some people conisder sacred or valuable etc is deemed art then I must be goo-like and i can live with that

  14. What an amazing artist and human being. I am so glad that I discovered these videos. Thank you so much for making them.

  15. I get that he's done a lot to preserve and the vase smashing did have a point to it but that still didn't make it okay or that the people offended by it are wrong for being offended, the person who made that vase died but lived on through their art. Does that then mean it's okay to burn all of Weiwei's art if someone's trying to make a statement?

    I'm annoyed at the people in the comments going "oh yeah, what he did is totally okay!" with a few even going so far as to say that the people criticizing his actions are wrong to do so, even in the video where they talk about governments demolishing old buildings and art don't seem to think that maybe both might be wrong.

    I'm not entirely against destroying something because there's only so much space and resources on this planet so you can't have everything be preserved, but that also doesn't mean you destroy whatever the hell you feel like destroying just because you want, at least not without expecting harsh criticism or even punishment depending on what's destroyed.

  16. such an incredible person. when i saw his zodiac heads in Praque, i thought they where really beautyful. little did i know the person behind the art is even more amazing.

  17. Throwing an antique to the ground, and you call that art??????
    China does not need dickhead artists like this. And that is why he had to go and was accepted by the UK and US.

    And UK and US are not stupid anyway. They accepted him not because of his art, but to use him as a media weapon to damage China's reputation. And they failed very badly.
    Please, BBC and White House, get some better story to criticize China. You are being cheap now.

  18. This artist has become a big gallery darling – can't walk into one without tripping over his work – audacious manipulation on an industrial scale

  19. of course everything he does isn't genius. The value of an artist is found more in their drive for constant creative output, irrespective of their fear of failure. If you're a good artist, you have one good idea in your life-time. If you're a genius, you have two.

  20. 做科学研究 还是做艺术,应该不要跟政治联系一起,如果一个艺术家有偏见那他很难取得真正的艺术成就,因为他的思想不纯净。

  21. So he made his point by doing the same as the state, way to go asshole! Also I question if what this man does is art (thousands are doing the same btw).

  22. Actually cried hearing the explanation about the steel bars.. Who knew I'd feel so much emotion on a pile or bars? haha Great video!

  23. Okay, this "case" was good. But I wish the narrator would slow down a bit and give us time to process some of the work she's referencing. It's not easy to appreciate Weiwei's art if we're only given a 2-second analysis.

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