The Heckler

Ai Weiwei: the perfect Asian artist for lazy western curators

His attitude to the Chinese authorities may be admirable — but his work isn’t up to much

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

In September, the Royal Academy of Arts will present a solo exhibition of works by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. This follows his installation of porcelain sunflower seeds in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a solo show at Blenheim Palace and two solo exhibitions at the Lisson Gallery (which represents him). Peculiarly, the Royal Academy’s press release claims that Ai’s work has not been seen extensively in Britain, which might suggest that its press team doesn’t get out much. He has certainly been exhibited here more than other key Chinese contemporary artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, Yang Fudong or Gu Wenda.

Ai transcends the art world, particularly since his arrest by the Chinese authorities in April 2011 when he was held without charge for 81 days. His detention sparked petitions, protests, a Free Ai Weiwei website and an Anish Kapoor-led lip-syncing video of the South Korean pop hit ‘Gangnam Style’ featuring prominent art-world figures. Mysteriously, the Chinese authorities failed to bow to pressure from the staff of MoMA, Norman Rosenthal and the Serpentine Gallery team dancing in the style of a jaunty horse-rider. A few months after his arrest, Ai was named as the most powerful person in Art Review’s Power 100 (he’s since drifted down to number 15, although that is still above Gerhard Richter, Jay Jopling and François Pinault).

Behind the adulation, however, there is a growing feeling that the actual artwork Ai produces is simply not up to much. In 2013 there were a couple of significant take-downs of his work. The first was an in-depth essay by the art critic Jed Perl. While making clear his admiration for Ai’s stand against the Chinese authorities, Perl argued that his art was alternately inane or derivative of American modernism. The early work is described as ‘highly diluted Dadaism’ and the later work as ‘postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause’. A more withering assessment came from Francesco Bonami, one of the art world’s most well-respected and plainly spoken curators. ‘I hate Ai Weiwei,’ Bonami said in an interview. ‘I think he should be put in jail for his art, and not for his dissidence …I think he exploits his dissidence in favour of promoting his art.’ Bonami’s critique was fleshed out by Colin Chinnery in a review for Frieze in September 2014. Like Perl, Chinnery noted his respect for Ai’s political stance but argued that the artist had moved from focusing on China’s political issues to a relentlessl focus on himself.

Lurking beneath this is the suspicion that Ai’s valorisation by large sections of the western art world is shot through with a certain level of cultural condescension. Of all the well-known Chinese contemporary artists, Ai’s work is the most attuned to western modern art movements. He uses the now rather obvious Duchampian strategy of treating everything as a readymade and Chinese cultural artefacts are often recontextualised in his work in this way. He is an ideal Asian artist for lazy western curators, making works that signal their ‘Chinese-ness’ through him waving around Chinese objects such as Han vases, while saying appropriately negative things about the Chinese authorities. Bonami went a bit far. Ai Weiwei doesn’t deserve prison for his art, but on the other hand he probably doesn’t deserve the whole of the Royal Academy.

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  • Prof Paul Gladston

    I should point out that I had begun writing and publishing a string of essays critical of AWW, expressing sentiments similar to those put forward by Perl et al, in 2011. The essays were published in initial and revised forms on the Randian website and in the journal Broadsheet.

    • Faulkner Orkney

      Are you claiming plagiarism or fishing for a round of applause?

      • edithgrove

        he’s setting the record straight

    • Gilbert White

      I will buy a copy in italic script on pure velum bound in Moroc, if you have one for sale.

  • David Booth.

    A lot of modern art just isn’t art but is a desperate attempt to be ‘artistic’ that often borders on the bizarre. Just look at the attempts of that raddled old millionaire over at Weston. There is no magic in machine, no hand of the creator just cheap tawdry tat.

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  • Sten vs Bren

    “His attitude to the Chinese authorities may be admirable — but his work isn’t up to much”

    His attitude towards the authorities IS the work.

    • Robert

      His attitude toward the authorities is political activism. The things he presents as visual art though I find unsatisfying.

      edit*or rather what curators present as visual art exhibitions.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    Art should have excellence and beauty…Mr.Ws has neither.

  • polistra24

    If a museum really wants to support art, it should be buying crafts on Etsy or Ebay. Woodcarving, little plaques, embroidery. There’s some real art in those circles.

    There’s no art at all among the nasty sadistic creatures who call themselves “Artists”.

  • IainRMuir

    Why has the noun “pseud” fallen out of favour? It seems more appropriate now than it ever was.

  • jim

    You could say the same about all modern art.

  • Gilbert White

    Ottoman Jewish Viziers at the BBC, fat persian boyos on magic carpets, now Chinese Confuscious Stones. Chancing, scamming and conning by foreigners of our supposed leaders has become a major art form in itself in the UK.

  • Mike Abst

    All bosh. Art has been reduced to sheer nonsense.
    YOU are NOT a modern ARTIST… but a worthless dismal duffer
    and pathetic PLAGIARIST, if you are prone to do one of the following things:

  • Tway

    ‘Marcel Duchamps’s urinal was quite a good joke the first time around, corny by the time of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and downright stupid today.’ – Roger Scruton, Beauty, page 99.

  • Our worlds are colliding at a faster pace now, the various countries and “artists” have to be in position to represent and this is the case here with Mr. W. Politics and art? Trending but not necessarily what we may or may not appreciate, art that is sub par, political, what have you. If we decide to be duped we will get what we came for, trendy politico-“artists” whose acclaim translates to big revenues for this artist who dominates the Asian art scene, and their “collectors” and little else of interest and value to so many of the rest of us. Could art be more boring? No.

  • post_x_it

    Completely agree that his stuff is rather dull compared to a lot of Chinese contemporary art. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in recent years is
    Yang Yongliang’s “Infinite Landscape”, on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.
    Looking forward to seeing the M+ Sigg Collection at the Whitworth (though there is some Ai Weiwei in it).

  • King Zog

    I think much contemporsry art is produced BY the right on FOR the right on. This was not always the case (Wagner, for example… Steinbeck, possibly… Kipling definitely. And Socialist luvvie Patrick Stewart once called Shakespeare a ‘selfish Tory’… high praise indeed, if somehwat anachronistic). Are there any right-of-centre artists, composers, writers today? I can’t think of any. Perhaps they’re just shy…

    Also much of the stuff spewed out by people like Ai Weiwei seems predicated on the notion that absolute freedom is necessary for the production of great works of art. Artists of the hightst rank, however, are not bothered by restrictions, whether physical, cultural or political. That doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t use their work to protest, but it seems that much contemporary art (particularly of the conceptual vareity) is parasitic on some kind of cultural or political protest. I find most of t exceedingly shallow, and boring.

  • ScrewBot

    Is everything you do boring, meaningless, ugly or offensive?
    Congratulations! You’re an artist!

  • Meg

    I disagree with almost every line of this piece. Having known the man for nearly 20 years, having lived and worked in a building he designed, having been his neighbor, I can tell you he is THE Warhol of the Chinese contemporary art scene. Ai has inspired a generation of young Chinese artists. Enough with the China bashing post-colonial disgruntlement nay-saying!

    • Petr Karlach


  • This is a laughable piece of writing, written by a racist.

  • i Wee Wee

    81 pots for 81 days! #aiweiwei #iweewee #RoyalAcademy #Art #royalacademy