CAMBRIDGE, England — Why is it so difficult to write about Ai Weiwei? I begin to discover the answer as I stand a few feet away from him at a press conference of sorts in Cambridge, England. Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard, where a new exhibition, Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt, is being staged, is putting a few questions to him. It was to be a brief affair, that was made clear. We would not be detaining him for too long. After all, he had art to make, errands to run, a life to live, lunch to eat. Ai himself is sitting in a chair, with his legs drawn back. He is wearing canvas shoes. He is dressed entirely in black. 

My eyes had strayed down to the shoes faute de mieux. The fact is that he had been very difficult to hear, and, if the truth were told, it was not really a press conference at all. The questions were soft-ball. The last was a rather emotional one from a journalist, and had largely consisted of thanks — from us all perhaps? Why not? — for being himself: a luminary, an activist, a man who speaks truth to power. Ai, being a courteous interlocutor, had returned her thanks. In short, no one was being called to account. It was an exercise in allowing us to be in the presence of Ai Weiwei, and many had eagerly answered that call. The atmosphere of awestruck reverence was almost suffocating. Perhaps Ai was untouchable. If that is the case, where were we left when judging his new art? And, if so, is that not a preposterous state of affairs for any critic to be in? 

A Chinese white marble Buddhist deity

Andrew Nairne was especially pleased to be able to claim a precious part of Ai. He even called him a local artist. This is true in part, of course. Ai has been in Cambridge since 2018. Cambridge was a good place to educate his son, and so he lives there — at least part of the time, with that son, his two cats, and his girlfriend. But does he not also live, at least part of the time, in Portugal? And did he not once live in Berlin, where he had a very large studio indeed? And was he not once also in New York, for a little more than a decade, living as an undocumented immigrant, savoring the freedom of Reagan’s America, learning the joys of being able to snap, quite casually and off the cuff, with a small, handheld camera, enjoying the precious freedoms of not being snooped on? And also learning what it might be like to work as a practicing artist, from the likes of Duchamp, Warhol, and Jasper Johns?

In the taxi back to the station, after all the razmatazz is over and done, I throw out a question to the publicist who is sitting behind me. Do you think he still feels under threat? There must be paranoia, she replies. How could there not be, given all that he has suffered?

That is the crux of the matter, of course. Ai has suffered a great deal for his art. As did his poet-father before him, who was banished to the countryside and forced to do meaningless toil, and to bow his head in shame every evening, for being nothing other than who he was. And he had been accompanied to that godforsaken, barren place by his son, who had been a witness to all his father’s humiliations.

Years later, those years in New York came to an abrupt end. His father was ill. He needed his son back in China. What else drew him back? The Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989. That was a turning point. He had to stay, to register a protest. How to do it though?

Ai Weiwei, “Surveillance Camera with Plinth” (2014)

The rest of his story in China, at first as an underground agitator of sorts, is fairly well known. It does not end well, of course. He helps to design the Wasp’s Nest stadium, and later is infuriated by how the CCP coopts it, using it as a platform for propaganda. In 2011, as he tries to leave the country, he is arrested. His passport is taken from him, and he spends 81 days in secret detention. He is refused the right to travel for four years. His studio in Shanghai is demolished. He leaves. He makes a home in Europe. And now he is a man who seems to live both somewhere and nowhere, a kind of drifting sage, a man known, above all things else, for his role as a conscience.

But what sort of work does he make? The fact is that his trajectory as a maker is less clear than his persona as something of a hero of our times. And that is a problem. It makes it more difficult to judge his work.

Much of the show is not work by Ai Weiwei at all. It is a lesson in encouraging his audience to think about the nature of faking and copying, and it pivots around a group of 14 Chinese antiquities that Ai thought he had bought from Cheffin’s, an auction house in Cambridge, relatively recently, and which are now on display in one of the two downstairs galleries. 

Thought he had bought antiquities? Yes, precisely. The difficulty is that some were not antiquities at all; they were copies. And part of the reason Ai has displayed them here is to remind us that the Chinese do not subscribe to the same idea of the authentic object as the West. There can be bad copies made for sale in the museum shop, and superb copies that can be regarded as equal to the original. This can cause big problems, even in China. In the last five years, according to a conversation reported in the show’s catalogue, a museum has opened in China every few days. At least three of them have subsequently closed because most of the works were forgeries. 

Ai Weiwei, “Handcuffs” (2011)

These thoughts are swirling around my head when I walk into the second of the exhibition’s galleries. This gallery contains objects authored by Ai himself. I choose that word “authored” with some care because these works have not necessarily been made by him. He has conceived them. You could say that they are conceptual artworks, more akin to Duchampian readymades than anything else — though these are readymades with a twist or two. Many are fabricated from precious materials — jade, for instance — and could quite legitimately be described as brilliant examples of the craftsman’s art. 

Consider a set of jade handcuffs, for example. Did Ai Weiwei make them? No, almost certainly not. As he remarked at the press conference, when speaking of the talented craftsmen who work for him, “I always want to give them more difficult work to do.” These are jade replicas of the very handcuffs that shackled him, and they must indeed have been very difficult to make. They are two things at once: a painful fragment of autobiography and a reminder of a state’s repressive actions. This is the problem, though: the fact that they are so directly related to the artist’s own backstory makes it difficult to judge them as works of art. That familiar backstory, together with the knowledge that these evils have been perpetrated by a one-party state whose actions much of the world has agreed to abhor, block our path. He is too much of a hero activist; he is too much an enemy of our favorite enemy, communist China. Is it also not a touch vainglorious on the part of the artist to raise up these handcuffs in this way?

Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt continues at Kettle’s Yard (University of Cambridge, Castle Street, Cambridge, England) through June 19. The exhibition was devised by Ai Weiwei and curated by Elizabeth Brown, Guy Haywood, and Andrew Nairne.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...

One reply on “In the Work of Ai Weiwei, Biography Supersedes Art”

  1. Dear Michael, great insightful article – but it ends too soon! There is so much more about the work of Ai Weiwei to be said and to be critical of. I see the power of his personal story but when I’ve been to his actual exhibitions, somehow I don’t feel what I’m supposed to feel, and I don’t know why. Your article answers that question mostly, but there could be more. Thanks for taking on a difficult angle.

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