“I think my stance and my way of life is my most important art.” When you think of an “art book” -- especially one collecting the works of an international art-star like Chinese activist, sculptor, installation and performance artist Ai Weiwei -- perhaps you do not envision a slim 120-page volume, measuring a diminutive 4 x 6 inches, and containing naught but plain, short texts. But when it comes to Ai Weiwei’s career, despite the litany of spectacular visual art he has produced and continues to produce, it may well be his catalog of Tweets for which he will become remembered. So in that sense, this clean yet comprehensive book is all the catalog you need.
“Everything is art. Everything is politics. Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It’s probably the only sport I enjoy.” Selections are organized into six categories -- freedom of expression; art and activism; government, power, and moral choices; the digital world; history, the historical moment, and the future; and personal reflections -- mostly addressing the harassment, persecution, and confinement he and other dissidents regularly face at the hands of the Communist regime in China. His own troubles with the regime have been highly publicized since 2008, but gained the spotlight in earnest following his 2011 arrest on vague tax-related charges and the nearly three-month detention and continuing travel proscription that ensued. But rest assured, his sparkling wit endured, too, and shines through at the best possible moments.
“I want people to see their own power. The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.” Through it all, the artist’s greatest accomplishments may well be in his bending the raw material of the social media to his intention. Its reach is great but its power difficult to harness. That said, even the most attention-span deficient of young people regard the curtailment of personal freedom as the most shocking of injustices, and thus their generational receptiveness met the brevity and superficiality of the platform halfway, dovetailing into the perfect consciousness-raising storm. Some lament the challenges of squeezing all they have to say into “140 characters or less” but for a talented mind like Weiwei’s, the fewer words, the more clear rings the truth -- and clarity is inclusive. Perhaps the gift of Tweeting comes naturally to one whose literary legacy includes Haiku, Confucius and Chairman Mao.
“What is my definition of freedom? It has a lot of levels. When we talk about freedom, it can be really dependent on where you are. For me, I think the most important freedom is to think freely.” As for the sayings -- or, Weiwei-isms as it were -- being a central form of his art, it’s true that in these writings text is not an element of the composition in the way that art usually entails, but even its overtly messaging-oriented content of politicism doesn’t land it in the dustbin of slogan. It exists in the space in between -- the very same space in between that is also where Ai Weiwei forever resides. The mind is as much his native country as China is -- and he wants nothing more than true freedom for them both.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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