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Opinion: Ai Weiwei in perspective

Peschel Sabine Kommentarbild App
Sabine Peschel
July 31, 2015

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is particularly admired in Germany. DW's Sabine Peschel comments on the Germans' fascination with the artist, and why we should avoid using him to simplify our interpretation of China.

Ai Weiwei, Copyright: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
Image: Reuters/M. Rehle

What would happen if an internationally known German artist, say Rebecca Horn, would grab a 2000-year-old Roman vase in Cologne and smash it onto the floor, keeping a fixed gaze doing it, and exhibit the photos of it as an artwork? She would certainly be accused of breaking some heritage protection law, and it would be a cause for public outrage.

That's what Ai Weiwei earned 20 years ago, for "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," a work which contributed to his international fame. The Western art world interpreted this as the artist breaking away from the Chinese authorities' ideological interpretation of the country's history, particularly notable in the 1990s.

Sabine Peschel, Copyright: DW
DW's Sabine Peschel

If you talk about Ai Weiwei with artists or intellectuals in China - some of them free spirits who have spent time abroad - they will tell you he went too far with this work, that this irretrievable destruction was pure provocation which only aimed to promote his persona. He didn't help his case by covering dozens of Neolithic vases with Coca-Cola logos or dipping others in industrial paint.

Why are we neglecting other Chinese artists?

This example demonstrates how different interpretations of works of art can be. That is normal - but it can also indicate how we look at China, using our own preconceptions.

Nine museums in North Rhine-Westphalia are showing the works of 120 Chinese artists in the comprehensive exhibition "China 8." When it opened last May, the German media were all preoccupied by one single question: Why is Ai Weiwei missing? It turned out that Chinese officials would have allowed him to be part of the exhibition, but he politely declined the invitation. Maybe he was too busy working on his own four exhibitions in Beijing for June? Or maybe he just didn't want to participate in such a gigantic group exhibition?

I think we should check our reflexes. Although Ai Weiwei's case is fascinating, we shouldn't forget all the other great Chinese artists. This is one of the main accusations on the part of Chinese intellectuals: Our perspective is loaded with Western prejudice and obsessions.

Ai Weiwei, Copyright: Gao Yuan - MartinGropius Bau
Chinese artist Ai WeiweiImage: Gao Yuan/MartinGropius Bau

The Ai Weiwei phenomenon in Germany

Ai Weiwei has many fans in Germany, who admire his political and highly aesthetic conceptual art. Since 2011, the year he was detained for 81 days, he has been a member of the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts). A three-year visiting professorship awaits him at the UdK, the Berlin University of Arts. His 2004 solo exhibition "Evidence" in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a Berlin museum, is still fresh in memory.

His intelligent anarchism - it is a well-known fact that Ai was influenced by the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp - fascinates me, just like the way he manages to appropriate Chinese history through his own artistic interpretation, all the while being trapped in the country's culture. I admire his social commitment, his courage to document and communicate, and his humanity.

Still we should avoid using Ai Weiwei as the reflection of our own interpretations of how China should be. He is not our speaker and he has always managed to avoid getting caught in the demands of his devotees.

Ai himself will further differentiate this for us artistically. It is good that he is here now, while the British administration has morally disgraced itself by deciding to concur with China's arbitrary justice system, attesting his criminal past.

Still I hope he does not need to stay here too long and that he will be able to safely return to China with his child and the child's mother. His large staff of assistants and his huge studio are awaiting him there, along with countless burning social issues.

His discourse remains global, even if his highly acclaimed artistic contributions, whether through the Documenta or important exhibitions, almost make us feel that he is a German artist.