Walking into “#AiWeiwei,” a monumental retrospective currently exhibiting at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), you may find yourself having mixed feelings about the artist’s reputation and the sustainability of photographic art in general. Ai, the famed Chinese dissident, seems more concerned with documentation than with expression. Those two principles aren’t mutually exclusive, but viewers still looking to art for beauty or transcendence may initially feel fatigued and bewildered.
Since 2008, Ai has been the subject of surveillance by the Chinese government. The intensity was spawned first by his boycotting the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. As one of the designers of the Olympic National Stadium — “The Bird’s Nest” — Ai resented the use of the games as propaganda and its symbolism becoming authoritarian rather than democratic.
That same year, Ai began speaking out about the shoddy construction of campuses that resulted in the deaths of thousands of students in Sichuan province following a level 8 earthquake. After the government refused to be transparent, Ai took to his personal blog to ask citizens to compile names and information about the victims.
In 2009, for seeking to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, a fellow activist detained in relation to the inquiry, Ai was savagely beaten by Chinese police. Frequent headaches led to the discovery of a brain hemorrhage and he had to have emergency surgery.
“Illumination,” the defiant selfie Ai took in the elevator while being detained by state police is “#AiWeiwei’s” marquee image. It adorns the exhibit’s catalog; it is used in all of the advertisements. Der Spiegel used it to exemplify an alleged “Smartphone Revolution,” where having a camera in everyone’s pocket makes it more difficult for injustices to occur.
This is not to say that “Illumination” is the centerpiece of the exhibit. That would be the center pillar on the first floor, which documents the ways in which the Chinese government spied on Ai once they considered him a threat.
A 2011 arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport resulted in Ai’s studio being searched, his laptop and hard drive seized, and eight staff members detained, along with Ai’s wife. The artist himself was detained for 81 days, secretly; his release put him on a probationary status that enabled the Chinese government to seize his passport, which wasn’t returned until 2015. It also triggered Ai’s studio being bugged (“Bugs”), his conversations being listened to during meals (“Dinner with Jerome Cohen”), and his movements being watched (“Secret Police Camera”). These events are kept track of meticulously, as are Ai’s responses.
In “WeWeiCam,” Ai set cameras up in his home and studio to “aid” the Chinese government. He documented his every move, then live-broadcasted it on the internet. After 46 hours and 5.2 million viewers, the government shut the website down.
As you rotate around the room, Ai’s selfie walls begin to catch your attention. “Leg Gun,” the most interesting of the group, was started after Ai held his leg up to resemble a rifle on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. He had seen the movement originally in a Mao-era ballet. Thousands of people made their own version of the selfie in solidarity; 765 were selected for the exhibit.
684 self-portraits Ai took throughout his career were selected for a wall simply titled “Selfies.” 16,276 images were selected for “Relating to Refugees,” Ai’s project of visiting dozens of refugee camps throughout the world and documenting them. Overwhelming doesn’t begin to do these installations justice. At a distance, the variation resembles pixelated faces blurred out to hide identities.
Attention-grabbing? Sure. Relevant? Indisputably. But is it art? Much of the piece’s relationship with the viewer crystallize into a kind of meta-voyeurism — the watcher watching the watched. You could see it as a commentary on art-as-privilege, where to look at art is simply a lofty perch from which to monitor, but that doesn’t seem right, either. Surveillance is the monitoring of action; art is the monitoring of consciousness. Again, one can bleed into the other, but viewing these projects brings to mind one of W.E.B. Du Bois’s most famous quotes: “What have we who are slaves and black to do with art?”
In the popular imagination, tangible use often asserts itself at the expense of self-expression, and parts of “#AiWeiwei” get at this. The smartphone camera is fast-food photography; the selfie, the treat at the bottom of a Happy Meal. The essential brutishness of the medium helps explain the stark differences in the value it conjures — from footage of the Syrian army firing into a crowd of protesters to getting a quick snap of the doughnut you just ate.
The exhibit is chronological from top to bottom and was specifically designed to be housed in MoCP and curated by Ai himself. The show documents how Ai’s photography, starting after his emigration to New York in 1983, was influenced both by a starstruck outsider’s perspective of the US and an acute sensitivity to state suppression. Along with Ai’s friends, Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, and Allen Ginsberg were subjects, as were several protesters beaten by police. Stills of police sit next to live action shots of arrests. The profound differences of American and Chinese police relationships (or the similarities) seem fresh in the artist’s mind.
Yet this crucial establishment of Ai, not as a conceptual rabble rouser, but at as a witness, is encountered last instead of first. As a result, it appears flatly — well-composed with lost steam — after viewers mount the laboriously-documented first floor to encounter the elation on the second.
The “Beijing Photographs,” taken over a span of 10 years after the artist’s return to China, document nothing short of the totality of human experience. Though Ai switched to color eventually, the selection shown in “#AiWeiwei” are all black and white. Health and infirmity, leisure and labor, poverty and luxury, modernity and antiquity: it’s difficult to find a subject that these photographs don’t articulate. It even documents the artist’s love of cats.
Exiting the “New York Photographs” section, on the far wall of the staircase, an infamous triptych of Ai breaking a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty urn becomes fully visible. The artist’s motivation was to channel a famous slogan from the Cultural Revolution: “Scatter the old world, build a new world.” To repurpose communist propaganda in order to call attention to its function (i.e., the manipulation of history) is thrilling, and about as punk as it gets. What emerges, walking the rest of the way down, is the story of a man who returned to his country with fresh eyes and different expectations, and who, when his government tried to sweep him under the rug, amassed a pile of detritus so large that they tripped on it. It’s an amazing story. If only it could be deduced on first try.
#Aiweiwei is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) through July 2, 2017.