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The art of protest

Port, 18 April 2011

Can art change the world? Ekow Eshun on the total politics of Ai Weiwei

Politics has been a desperately unfashionable subject in art for the past decade or more. That’s roughly the length of time of the last art boom and it’s telling that the big hitters of that era – among them Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst – produce art that is glossy and expensively finished but which raises few questions or hackles. In its absence of dissonance, a Koons giant inflatable bunny or a Hirst spin painting has become a perfect status symbol for moneyed classes around the world from investment bankers and hedge fund guys to Russian oligarchs and Gulf state sheiks.

But the art bubble collapsed with the economic meltdown in 2008. And in its wake, the lustre of such pieces feels oddly out of step with the times. Indeed, even while works of contemporary art were hitting record auction prices, the world was hardly a bright and shiny place. September 11th, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharaib, Afghanistan, the failure of Copenhagen – if ever there was a time for art to question, to challenge, to provoke, it should have been during the Noughties.

But what does political art even look like anymore? If we can recognize Guernica as a genuine, rending cri de coeur, what does it mean to state a position against war or the forces of authority today? Is it the agit-montages of a Peter Kennard? A Banksy graffito? A sign painting by Bob and Roberta Smith? How do you really prompt people to look at the world differently in these media-saturated times of ours?

To my mind, the figure who’s addressed that question most effectively, that’s to say without overt sloganeering but with intense personal conviction, is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Following his arrest on April 3rd, the Chinese government has been insisting that Ai’s incarceration has nothing to do with politics. The authorities have announced themselves “baffled” at the international support for a figure accused of “economic crimes”. Government-backed stooges in the Chinese art world have crept out to denounce him as a “fraud”, an “amateur” and a “third rate” artist. The intention in all this is to strip him of status or prominence as a dissident. To brand him a common criminal as a prelude, potentially, to locking him up and throwing away the key.

The irony is that what makes Ai Weiwei a great and important artist of our times is his fascination with the political impact of ideas and gestures. In his formulation of the world, every word, every action has a political edge to it. He is by nature, an iconoclast, happiest when he is reconfiguring the meaning of things or throwing conventional notions of history, tradition and cultural worth into the air. In an iconic early work he did just that, allowing a 2000 year-old Han dynasty urn to slip through his fingers and shatter into pieces on the floor. This doesn’t look like a conventional political act until you put it into the context of China’s own violent relationship to its own past – the bulldozing away of historic city neighbourhoods to make way for new office blocks, the purges of the Cultural Revolution, the official amnesia surrounding Tiananmen Square. A prolific blogger and Tweeter, Ai makes no distinction between his work as an artist and his voice as a citizen, attempting to hold the Chinese government accountable to the rule of law.

He shows how it is possible to be deeply engaged in politics in ways that are meaningful and inspirational to how we live now. At a time when art is all too often indivisible from entertainment Ai Weiwei is that rare thing: an artist whose work addresses the quality and texture of the world we live in. An artist who strives to make the world a better place.

The author

Ekow Eshun

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