Books

Digging Into Ai Weiwei’s Online Diary

Ai Weiwei’s Blog, Translated by Lee Ambrozy, MIT Press (2011)

Reading through detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s blog, recently translated by Lee Ambrozy and published as a book by MIT Press, isn’t fun, and it’s not for the faint of heart. A carefully selected culling of the artist’s massive production of posts between 2006 and 2009, the volume is a guts-and-all portrait of the man who is in all likelihood the most important artist working in the world today. That he remains arrested without charge by the Chinese government only heightens the strained urgency of Ai’s posts, an avalanche of “writings, interviews and digital rants,” as the book’s tagline puts it, that range through political philosophy, aesthetic inquiry and simple documentation of daily life.

Ai’s blog was begun on an offer from the Chinese media company Sina, who invited a selection of well-known cultural figures to act as “celebrity bloggers” to be highlighted on the web portal’s sina.com.cn homepage. The artist’s first post came in October 2005, though Ai joked that he barely knew how to type before that. The blog and the artist himself became phenomenally popular with China’s netizens, attracting an enormous following and increasing Ai’s visibility even as he began to be more vocal about his opposition to the Chinese government’s policies of censorship and issues with corruption.

In the blog as well as his career, Ai’s politics blend and blur with his artistic practice. In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it was discovered that many of the children that died in the catastrophe were killed because of the shoddy construction and resultant collapse of their school buildings — a result of local government corruption and corner cutting. The Citizen Investigation, Ai’s inquiry into these deaths, may have been an art project, but to the government it was a threat. As Ai published the details of his findings, outright censorship of the blog increased in frequency and the site was eventually shut down on May 28, 2009. Ai switched his daily publishing over to an equally popular, and now equally threatened, Twitter account.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog is a memorial, then. It’s a monumental work comprising daily thinking, internal arguing and political debate. Here, Ai’s voice is uncensored and unafraid of grand statements, even if the prose gets a little purple at times. Take this quote, for example, which begins a post from February 23, 2006:

China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude, for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists. For a developing China, these are merely idealistic pursuits.

Quite a heady first paragraph. It’s important to keep in mind the problems that come with translating Chinese: there’s a fine line to walk between keeping the text true to its meaning and making it smoothly readable in English prose. Ambrozy’s translations (along with spot work by other translators including LEAP Magazine‘s Phil Tinari) tend toward preserving the literal meaning, the style and tone, rather than making Ai’s writing easily digestible. That angle is a good choice for a book should come to be viewed as an historical document and a source text, but fair warning for anyone looking for an entertaining read — many entries in Ai Weiweis Blog tend toward what an average English reader would describe as academic.

Ai covers everything his eye falls on through the published blog posts. One particularly memorable entry narrates his participation as a volunteer in a raid on a cat farm (raised to be sold as pets) housed in a Tianjin warehouse, outside Beijing. Once uncovered, the cats “emitted hungry and terrified moans … a few of them tried to slide their way over, running their heads on our legs in the hopes they might win some of that former love and protection.” The cat dealer threatens the volunteers and some are beaten by corrupt policemen. This is a first-person account of contemporary China that rarely makes it into the English language.

Those looking for an in-depth look into Ai’s studio practice might be disappointed that the majority of the posts dwell on political, social and philosophical issues rather than those of pure aesthetics. But like Ai’s oeuvre, his writing combines his influences to the point that the aesthetic becomes the political and vice versa. In one memoriam of Andy Warhol, a major influence, Ai writes that “no one like Andy could ever exist [in China], a megastar from an average, conventional family who harbored democratic and humanistic values.”

Readers might leave Ai Weiwei’s Blog feeling like they’ve slogged through 100 pages of someone’s inner monologue spewed onto a Tumblr. They might feel lectured to, shouted at. But what’s important is that this book doesn’t try to simplify or sugar coat the tumultuous recent past of a figure who will remain artistically and culturally relevant for decades to come. I can only imagine that this is only the first of the book’s many future editions.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog is available through MIT Press.

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