Book Excerpt: Maya Kóvskaya on Ai Weiwei
Below are excerpts from Maya Kóvskaya’s essay in the exhibition catalogue for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. The extended essay places the exhibition in the context of Ai Weiwei’s life and work as an artist and activist. Read the complete text in the book — order a copy today!
An irreverent maverick with a cast-iron social conscience, Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei has been called many things. He’s been called China’s most famous living artist, while Western headlines have hinted that the defiant political critic just might be “China’s most dangerous man” and even claimed that the artist is an “enemy of the state.” Of course, in places where regimes monopolize historical “truth” — defending their claims to power by acting as gatekeepers of public culture — the union of art and political critique is a dangerous terrain. Yet through his art, Ai Weiwei fearlessly speaks his truth to power, and it is in this role of the public intellectual that Ai Weiwei’s vocation finds its apotheosis. . . .
What is so compelling about Ai Weiwei is not merely that his artwork is at once both beautiful and critical but also that it is as democratic in form as in message; it is an art intended for people everywhere. Ai Weiwei is a genuine public intellectual not only because he speaks for the public but because he speaks to the public. He is effective because he does so in an intelligent yet accessible visual language that anyone (with a little cultural and historical context) can come to understand. . . .
With great fame often comes a distorted sense of self-importance, but rather than being intoxicated by fame, Ai Weiwei is intrigued by what fame can leverage. His sees through the gimcrack glitz of celebrity and finds its rituals risible, yet understands that his high profile is partly what keeps him from disappearing into the bowels of a disgruntled state apparatus — a state impatient with his public provocations. Yet instead of convincing him to pack those contentious skeletons back into tidy closets, as so many of his peers have done in exchange for the right to make money, each effort to bully Ai Weiwei into self-censorship has only amplified his sense of outrage.
Indeed, each attempt to show Ai Weiwei that he is puny and powerless before the mighty state has only crystallized the artist’s understanding of the necessity of speaking out. As Edward Said suggested, a public intellectual is “someone whose place is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations.” Being a public intellectual is neither parallel to nor separate from Ai Weiwei’s practice as an artist but inextricably intertwined. For Ai Weiwei, being an artist is a way of being a person. And being a person he can face in the mirror has become synonymous with being a public intellectual.
A line from one of his father’s poems, “Living Fossil,” foreshadows the principled resistance that animates Ai Weiwei’s life’s work: “. . . any fool can see: / We cannot live unless we can move. / To live is to struggle, / to advance / We must expend our all / Before the advance of death.”
Perhaps more unambiguously than any exhibition of his work thus far, @Large transcends both the larger-than-life myth of Ai Weiwei as art world celebrity and the poignancy of his own predicament as a critic of one of the world’s most powerful states. In doing so, this exhibition becomes something greater than simply a testament to individual will and a display of his personal struggles and achievements. Created in dialogue with the multiple histories of Alcatraz, the works in @Large are an embodiment of how Ai Weiwei’s art can speak across nations and cultures to all of us, drawing us into a conversation about resistance and persistence and, in doing so, offering visitors to this prison island a humbling, uplifting vision of the potential power of the powerless.
— Maya Kóvskaya