Ai Weiwei and Klein, Caroline 2011 Ai Weiwei’s Blog; and Ai Weiwei: Architecture, reviewed by Simone Hancox
Ai Weiwei edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, MIT Press, London, England, 2011, 307 pages, £18.95 paper, US $24.95, ISBN 9780262015219
Caroline Klein, Ai Weiwei: Architecture, Daab Media, Cologne, Germany, 2011, 176 pages, £22.50 hardcover, US $ 35.00 ISBN 9783942597012
On April 3, 2011, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was thrust into the global media spotlight when authorities in Beijing arrested him on suspicion of economic crimes. Ai has since been released, but his detention sparked international accusations over human rights abuses in China and stoked further interest in Ai’s practice. Published just preceding these events, the books reviewed here are inadvertently timely; their contexts and contents are indicative of Ai’s proliferating, multi-disciplinary output, and, consequently, his growing and diverse audiences. Anyone familiar with Ai’s work will know that the adjective commonly preceding his name is ‘artist’, especially known in the UK for his recent Sunflower Seeds (2010-2011) installation in London’s Tate Modern. But in addition to his vocation as a visual artist, Ai is also a filmmaker, photographer, curator, antiques collector, designer, political activist, architect, and fervent blogger. It is the latter two roles that these books address.
Ai Weiwei’s Blog translated by Lee Ambrozy gives readers access to an English language version of Ai’s personal and political writing that was originally hosted on the Chinese website Sina.com; it is the largest publication in any language to date – no publishers in China would risk printing it for fear of “political correctness” (page xiii). The posts respond to a number of personal and public events and titles meander from “Yesterday I Cut My Hair” (page 47), to “Some Thoughts on Future Cities” (page 78), to his opinions on “Obama” (page 182). Caroline Klein’s book, Ai Weiwei: Architecture, is the most comprehensive collection of Ai’s architectural practice, but it is also ‘architecture’ loosely defined, ranging from “furniture, interior, architecture to landscape design and urban tactics” (page 172). Indeed, if an architect is someone who is formally trained in designing, planning, and overseeing the construction of buildings, Ai does not technically fit the bill. Qualifications aside, the individual and collaborative projects documented are manifold and far-reaching. What these monographs make clear is the scope and multiplicity of Ai’s thinking and praxis, his ability to practically apply himself to a variety of projects and articulately deliver his opinions on a plethora of subjects.
Both books are organised chronologically, giving the reader a sense of the developments and shifts in Ai’s work. Ai Weiwei’s Blog dates from 2006 with regular posts until May 28, 2009, when it was deleted by the Chinese authorities. The preface and introduction follow with four main sections. ‘2006 Texts’ includes a number of commentaries written preceding the commencement of the blog (some as early as 1997) that are flecked with a general concern with architecture, cities, and space. ‘2007 Texts’ is the sparsest section due to Ai posting “more photos than words” (page xxvii); nevertheless, there is an insightful interview on his Fairytale (2007) project (pages 120-125), as well as disparate deliberations on Andy Warhol, the treatment of animals, and the standardization of art in China. ‘2008 Texts’ becomes overtly political, addressing the government’s failure to protect its citizens from the Wenchuan earthquake in the province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008, as well as Ai’s belligerence towards the Beijing Olympic Games. ‘2009 Texts’ evidences Ai’s active political fervor, documenting his role in the “Citizen Investigation” (page 209) that released the names of children who died in the earthquake, as well as Ai’s harassment by the Chinese police during this time. A final ‘Epilogue’ is an interview with Ai, reflecting on the closure of his blog, and his current use of microblogging on Twitter.
Ai Weiwei: Architecture is structured by date of design, beginning in 1999 with Ai’s studio and residence in Caochangdi, Beijing and prompted by the fact that “he did not want to rely on architects in China” (page 4). By 2003, Ai had founded FAKE Design Studio in order to cope with an increasing demand for his architectural practice. The ensuing contents hopscotch between a myriad of projects, including: a monolithic sculptural fountain entitled Concrete (2001) in Beijing (page 16); a bar where a “feeling of upside down icebergs or glacial cracks has been created” (page 24); the landscape design of Ai Qing Middle School (2003) premised on “creating zones for relaxation, reading, sports, meeting points and for assemblies” (page 43); numerous residential designs (pages 26, 66, 100 and 152); and his famous collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron in designing the Beijing National ‘bird’s nest’ Stadium (page 156).
Both monographs largely present the work of Ai Weiwei, as opposed to engaging with critical analyses, and each adopts a mode that reflects their respective subject matters. If the dominant discourse of architecture is the visual, this is the approach that Klein has fully embraced. There is a brief introduction by the author, and some short, contextualizing texts that accompany a selection of the projects (in addition to English, they are translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). While readers trained in, or familiar with, architecture may be underwhelmed by an absence of technical register and detail, the sheer abundance of images lends agency to the readers’ own interpretations of Ai’s architectural works, and provides a rich source for those practiced in visual methodologies. Moreover, what the book loses in analysis and architectural lexicon it gains in accessibility; the volume of images of Ai’s buildings, parks, and sculptures provide a valuable overview for any followers of Ai’s multidisciplinary practice and eclectic style, which ranges from the modest and quotidian to the gargantuan and unorthodox. Ai Weiwei’s Blog, by contrast, is principally text based, ranging from diary-style entries to critical essays. Given this, I was anticipating overwhelming application of endnotes unpacking cultural referents and literary allusions, but they were used relatively sparingly. Nonetheless, they were used, and while Ambrozy forewarns of “Weiwei-isms” (page xxvii), readers unfamiliar with Chinese society might find the necessary endnotes a little disruptive to Ai’s fluid prose. Equally, even when local referents are explained, the book sometimes fails to convey their full import and prominence within Chinese society and to a Chinese readership. Such a battle between thorough clarification and over-annotation is inevitable with this kind of translation, but generally, the balance is well conceived for a reader unfamiliar with China.
In both of these texts, Ai’s aesthetics and politics are laid bare to be interpreted, but they are not critically engaged. Ai Weiwei: Architecture exemplifies Ai’s minimal, modernist aesthetic, and in contradistinction to the contemporary modernization of China with its “glass-and-steel high-rises […] his constructions are nearly always built of gray brick” (page 4). Like Ai himself, the buildings fluidly integrate both western and eastern influences; hints of a Le Corbusier style functionalism frequently meet postmodern geometry and locally sourced and recycled materials. Ai has stated elsewhere that architecture is “the same kind of exercise as art, but under very different conditions. It’s much more political because you have to deal with state policy, development, labor, and production, and then it always becomes a social activity because it’s public” (Ai & Culp, 2007). Ai exhibits a Lefebvrian understanding that “representations of space” (Lefebvre 1991, page 33) have a propensity towards imposing top-down writing upon the environment; sensitive to this, he strives to respond to site and its residents, often using existing structures and traditional methods. Similarly, the mélange of posts in Ai Weiwei’s Blog might result in the reader struggling to find any singular, coherent argument, theory, or debate regarding Chinese and/or global society, but it is steeped in post-Marxist influences of pluralism and libertarianism. Ai’s blog posts are not as prescriptive as an outright manifesto, but there is a Debordian and Benjaminian intuition, polemic and poeticism to his social commentary. Undergirding his acerbic tongue and astute critique of authority, there is a moralizing tonality; rather than calling for a wholesale change of politics proper in China (and elsewhere) Ai appears to plea for transparency, democracy, and global human rights. Such a collection is powerfully indicative of the Internet itself as a medium for self-expression and a platform for immediate, playful, shifting, prosaic, but also profound observations on the world, especially in a nation where public information, even in cyberspace, is strictly policed.
While disparate in their content and approaches, both of these books give a comprehensive sense of Ai’s diversity and international appeal, and are especially useful in gaining a better understanding of Ai’s relationship to China and his Chinese audience. Klein provides an extensive visual compilation of the work of a Chinese architect who situates his practice both within and against China’s rapid urban expansion (most projects are situated in Beijing, though there are others throughout China and a small number in the United States and Europe). Similarly, Ambrozy’s translation of Ai’s blog acts as an incisive barometer of the social, cultural, and political milieu of contemporary China and its place in global society. Despite the West’s influence upon Ai, the blog permits a rare glimpse at a Chinese citizen writing for a largely Chinese audience. Ai Weiwei’s Blog is not only a valuable text for those who are interested in Ai Weiwei, but anyone who might want to gain insight into a Chinese (but also transnational) citizen’s disparate and personal polemics on China, politics, architecture, globalization, the Internet, art practice, and the media. Ai Weiwei: Architecture is not a scholarly text, and while it may be more accessible to a wider readership, it will probably appeal to readers more narrowly interested in Ai Weiwei’s architecture, or at least wishing to have access to a visual archive of a Chinese architect’s work. Overall, where most publications to date have focused on Ai’s global art, these texts present a much-needed insight into his extensive thinking and practice, especially within China.
Simone Hancox, Department of Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, London E1 4NS, United Kingdom
Ai W & Culp S, 2007, “Interview: Ai Weiwei with Samantha Culp” Samantha Culp, http://samanthaculp.com/2007/07/interview-ai-weiwei-artkrush-jul-2007/
Lefebvre H, 1991 The Production of Space translated by D Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell, Oxford)