Politics as Art, Art as Politics:
Ai Weiwei and William Kentridge

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Ai Weiwei: Royal Academy, London until 31th December 2015
William Kentridge: Marian Goodman Gallery until 24th October 2015

The Chinese artist, designer and architect, Ai Weiwei has come to be regarded as a creative figure of global stature, largely because of his personal bravery and strong social conscience in speaking out against the repressive Chinese government. He has been imprisoned for his pains and galvanised a generation of artists. On his return to China in 1993, after twelve years in America, his work began to reflect the dual influences of both his native culture and his exposure to western art. He cites Duchamp as “the most, if not the only, influential figure” in his art practice. As a conceptual artist Ai Weiwei starts with an idea – for example China’s relationship to its history – addressed in this major show at the Royal Academy by Table and Pillar, 2002, and made, as part of his Furniture series. A salvaged pillar from a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple has been inserted into a chair to form a totemic work. Having spent a month in China in 2000, I can confirm that Ai Weiwei has every reason to be concerned about the destruction of his cultural heritage which, when I was there, was daily being destroyed to make way for ‘modernisation’. Coloured Vases, 2015, further questions notions of value and authenticity by illustrating that fake antiquities are made with exactly the same techniques as authentic vases. In classic postmodernist style Ai Weiwei’s objects take on the characteristics of a Barthian ‘text’ to be deconstructed by those who are able to ‘read’ and decode them.

In an interview in Studio International in December 1972, Joseph Beuys suggested that: “Most people think they have to comprehend art in intellectual terms – in many people the organs of sensory and emotional experiences have atrophied”. Beuys, himself, was the master mystic and shaman. What made, and continues to make his work resonate was his ability to transform inert material into poetic metaphor, to set in train an alchemical process whereby physical substances metamorphosed into archetypal myths. It is this ‘translation’ that elevates his work from political didacticism into art.

And this is the problem with Ai Weiwei. It is impossible to separate his biography from the way we view his art. But this is politics as art, rather than art as politics. It is, in the most sophisticated sense, illustration rather than a process of transformation and metamorphosis. A pair of jade handcuffs and sculptures such as Surveillance Camera and Video Camera, 2010 are the result of an idea rather than having grown out of a process of discovery. The result, for the viewer, is an intellectual rather than a felt experience.

The most emotionally powerful piece is Straight 2008-12 related to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. It is fabricated from ninety tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) that collapsed because of cost-cutting corruption and resulted in the deaths of thousands, especially school children. These iron bars were painstakingly collected by the artist and straightened by hand in his studio by assistants. The futile process speaks of the low value of labour in China and the pointless, often mindless, bureaucracy of the regime, as well as being a testament to those who died. But the Carl Andre influenced arrangement of rods on the floor needs the accompanying explanatory video and wall texts to evoke a full emotional response. Take these away and I wonder if we would read the work with the same pathos.

A series of dioramas, complete with spy holes, recreates Ai Weiwei’s prison conditions – the ever-present guards in a room inexplicably completely covered in plastic. Seeing these chilling scenarios it is impossible not to admire Ai Weiwei’s integrity as a man but as an artist there is something strangely dispassionate and derivative about the work.

Across town, at the Marian Goodman Gallery is another political artist, William Kentridge. Born in Johannesburg in 1955. Kentridge studied politics and African studies before doing fine arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, then studying mime at the famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he hoped to become an actor; however was, he says, so bad that he was reduced to becoming an artist. Since then he has worked in theatre and in television as an art director and in 1999 won the Carnegie International Medal. Best known for his animated films, his evocative, powerful and disturbing works are constructed by a process of filming and drawing. A few years ago I was lucky enough to interview him. A fast talker, he has a formidable intellect. Born into a cultured Jewish family, his father was a well-known anti-apartheid lawyer.

The downstairs gallery at Marian Goodman is devoted to a new series of paintings where Tang dynasty poetry and adapted Cultural Revolution slogans such as ‘Long, Long, Long Live The Mother(Land)’, ‘Eat Bitterness’ and ‘Sharpen Your Philosophy’ are interwoven with vast ink images of flowers painted on found texts. Links are made between the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the events of May 1968 and the Paris Commune of 1871. A large diptych pairs the silhouette of a single iris with a transcribed page of propaganda from the Paris Commune, eliding the French Revolution with China’s Cultural Revolution. Here Kentridge explores the misuse and exploitation of language, while making a reference to Manet’s late paintings and asking why the man who painted such a fervent political work as The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) should have devoted his last years to flower paintings.

The core of the show, More Sweetly Play the Dance, is a stunning eight-screen danse macabre that encircles the upper gallery. The African figures, seen in silhouette, move in a continuous procession across the screen against a bleak charcoal landscape. Priests swirl in voluminous robes, others carry wands of lilies. Women in 19th century skirts pull heavy wagons, melding the image of Brecht’s Mother Courage with that of a crusaders’ pageant. Some of the participants hold up drawings of heads mounted on sticks: a female worker, a miner, while men in dinner jackets gesticulate wildly. A black ballet dancer spins around on points holding a Kalashnikov. There are walking secateurs and machines made of crutches, along with a phalanx of invalids hooked up to saline drips that barley seem to be keeping them alive. They might be refugees or AIDS victims. It is impossible to know for sure. Meaning is slippery but what seems certain is that they are Everyman/woman who has ever suffered deprivation or loss. There is also a group of dancing skeletons and a brass band dressed in Ruritanian- style military uniforms playing a wailing, defiant anthem This is a post-apocalyptic vision – part pagan, part Christian – a cortege of dispossessed pilgrims on the march and on the move, to whom something cataclysmic has happened and who are attempting to create forgetfulness and meaning through this hypnotic ritual.

Downstairs the three-screen film installation Notes Towards a Model Opera grew from research for a recent exhibition in Beijing and conflates, dance, martial arts, absurdist theatre with Madame Mao’s Model Revolutionary Operas. Plundering ideas from Dada, Goya and the Chinese infiltration of Africa things emerge and transform to reveal Kentridge’s odyssey through a landscape scared by apartheid and post-colonialism. His is an art of ambiguity. Existential, rooted in surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd meaning is not fixed but discovered through juxtapositions in the process of making. The strength lies in its searing visual potency and the metaphors he creates to reveal both the despair and triumph of the human condition.


Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar, 2002
Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 460 x 90 x 90 cm
London, Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee, 2008
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12
Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm
Lisson Gallery, London
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Copyright: William Kentridge
Courtesy: The artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge
More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015
8-channel video installation with four megaphones, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9 duration 15 minutes (includes end credits)

William Kentridge
Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2014 -2015
3-channel video installation, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9
Duration 11 minutes 14 seconds (includes credits)

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