Ai Weiwei, “My Surveillance Camera” (2010) (photo by author)

The Armory Show 2011, though not mind-blowing, certainly had its highlights. But one piece that made me look twice, and then fall into a deep pit of failed artistic expectation, was Ai Weiwei’s “My Surveillance Camera” (2010) at Galerie Urs Meile. It’s a surveillance camera, but made of marble. Get it?

If I was doing Art Fag City’s signature “Object Most Resembling Contemporary Art” series, this would definitely be the winner. It’s like Ai Weiwei woke up one day, Google image searched “contemporary art,” and hodge-podged the results into a single, simplistic idea of material transformation and appropriation. The piece is some Banksy-level stuff from one of the only artists who can pull off such transformative pieces without collapsing into cliche.

Is it commentary on the omnipresence of surveillance? Is it the posing of government surveillance as a sign of wealth and prosperity for a growing China? Does it look a little like a Star Wars robot? All of these may be true. This piece just did not succeed at transcending its sources. It’s totally contemporary art, I’m just not sure what else.

[Update]: Thinking of this in its Chinese title rather than the title given on the label (“My Surveillance Camera” rather than “Surveillance Camera” makes more sense to me. If this mechanical object made natural and permanent is meant to represent the burden of the artist’s own surveillance by the Chinese government, then I’m liking it more. I still think the material is kind of gratuitous, but the stone lends it a poetry as a metaphorical “weight.”

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

16 replies on “The Worst Ai Weiwei Ever [UPDATE]”

  1. You also want to know what is contemporary bullshit…your review, it’s pretty much a carbon copy of every bitchy fecalpheliac with a twitter account. Thanks for your input though, we get it, you’re bored and frustrated with the complacency that your art history degree has given you and the amount of crap your friends bitch about over organic cheek crafted dry rubbed dingleberries.

    1. I mean at least the “review” (actually a pithy, sarcastic, simplistic write-up) had more logical analysis and less rage than your comment?

      1. haha word, i suppose…it’s just that anytime I see AFG mentioned I think William Powhida (who in my opinion is the biggest turd ball alive) so it’s not actually that your expert opinion was bad it’s just that my processes of association are ef’d up…sorry for pinning it on you, no Rrrrrrealy

        -chocolate starfish

  2. i like this, the material and the appropriated object are open to so many discussions that the artist can be as lazy as he likes, he doesn’t even need to have an opinion..

  3. well the display on the floor is a bit incongruous. i wonder if that was by instruction of the artist?
    a plinth on a column or hung from the ceiling by a stainless bracket would be nice.

    it looks like it’s waiting to be displayed.

      1. I can see an argument for putting it on the floor – you’re neutering it by making it point at nothing interesting – but it seems redundant in light of the marble.

  4. Interesting discussion about the choice of display. To me the work hints more at a classical bust. I’d have put it on a pedestal.

    1. It seems too ambivalent to be cute to me though. It’s very straight-faced, not going one way or the other. At least I don’t feel very endeared.

  5. The Chinese title (and your reading of it, which I think is ‘correct’ as these things go) just makes it worse. OOH SURVEILLANCE THE GOVERNMENT IS AFTER ME is the Easy Cheese of Chinese art: initially attractive, gradually sickening as you begin to think about it, ultimately destructive. It’s a regional gimmick that appeals by giving voice to the underdoggy/rebellious feelings we’re too free to ever use productively in the West, but forces every artist in the world’s most populous country to operate in the same context. Until we stop giving this cliche backpats, we’re going to have “Chinese Contemporary Art” but not “Contemporary Artists from China”.

      1. You’re right that it’s more widespread as a trope, but I don’t think Banksy’s all that similar – I think he’s an essentially political artist who was able to choose that field from a wide variety of options available to him as a contemporary artist. Ai Weiwei, it seems to me, had his own (largely apolitical) art practice going on that’s now been co-opted by the political storyline around him. I’m not saying the political stuff isn’t serious, or doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t ever inform his work, I just think that somebody would have pointed out “yo Ai this camera is shit” a whole lot sooner if we didn’t, as an art world, have a fetish for dissidence in China.

  6. Did Weiwei sculpt this or is this communist labor. I hope the artists he inlists get more than a ball of rice and a dead rat for being his assistants which is the new standard for American laborers

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