Ai Weiwei - individualism in the globalised world


After having scattered millions of porcelain sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbin Hall, Ai Weiwei was declared the world’s most important artist of 2011. The dissident, who have visited both luxurious European and American hotels and Chinese prisons, is also on top of the 100 most powerful figures in the contemporary art list recently prepared by Art Review magazine. Contrary to the way he is perceived by the Western enthusiasts of his work and public activity, the cosmopolite Ai Weiwei, author of installations, custodian, architect, filmmaker, photograph, social worker, great cook and hairdresser, creates truly multidimensional art. It is clear in his documentaries "So Sorry" (2012) and "Ordos 100" (2012).

The first one refers to an exhibition organized in Haus der Kunst In Munich in 2009. The installation "Remembering", composed of children’s backpacks, was the result of artist’s study on the earthquake in Sichuan. The study was carried out despite the Chinese government discontent, and its results showed uncommonly numerous death cases of schoolchildren. Because of his insubordination, Ai Weiwei was spied on by the undercover agents. Using his camera as a weapon, Ai proceeded to unmask them, which caused even more brutal oppressions from the police. After one of the police’s violent attacks, Ai was diagnosed with cerebral hemorrhage and had to undergo brain surgery in German hospital. Fighting against totalitarian system for the right to criticism and free speech often results in various injuries. Ai Weiwei, now covered in sticking plaster, exposes them with the unusual charm. His private life, characteristic figure and face are constantly used as one of the forms of his visual expression.



The other film, "Ordos 100", is a clever documentation of Ai Weiwei’s cooperation with Herzog & de Meuron, Swiss architectonic stars, and Cai Jiang, private megalomaniac developer, who wanted to build a luxurious housing estate in the middle of Mongolian desert. This crazy conceptual challenge gathered 100 architects from around the world. Each of them agreed to design a 1000 sq meter house. Even though it seemed to be either a joke or provocation, the architects took the project seriously. With area development plan of an oasis filled with greenery and without any information about the inhabitants or the neighborhood characteristics, the creators zealously began working on the task, reminiscent of their student years. In numerous debates and discussions, confused artists pondered over the essence of modern architecture, the idea of the house, and the idealistic beliefs about its purpose to serve human beings. Touching upon the subject of "elusiveness" they experience while designing for clients, they manifested the helplessness they feel not only in this specific project, but also in everyday work or even in everyday life, while communicating with other people. It also appeared that the artists didn’t really mind the typical Chinese affection for magnitude that surrounded them, even though normally they are detached from similar stylistic. After two months of solitary work, architects returned back to China with ready projects.



"Ordos 100" is a satire on individualism. It is a monumental, divided among 100 strong voices "Bilbao effect". Each house is a piece of art, yet their accumulation is unbearable. The architects themselves, having had problems with creating a prototype of common house for the neighborhood, detach themselves from imposed rules. They call instant collective concept "a zoo". Despite being used to think about the globalization as their ally ("people live in the same way everywhere, we don’t need to know local contexts"), they have discovered its new meaning: in the small global village everything is connected, it is impossible to live in isolation, and the real freedom, also aesthetic, does not exist. It is not hard to guess that the Ordos 100 project hasn’t been realised yet – even in China.

Stuck between the conceptual and engaged art, between extremely original approach to the uniqueness of an individual and the whole modern society, between the East and the West, politics of totalitarian country and market, and the everyday life, Ai Weiwei continues to surprise the audience with his interdisciplinary works. Despite of the complicated process of realization, the simplicity of their message never fails to move, astonish and disclose.


Agnieszka Szeffel
"Ekrany" issue 5(9) 2012

Edited & translated by Klaudia Januszewska

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