Is All Art Political? Definitely.
Here's what I learnt from China's biggest contemporary artist Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studios
I used to struggle with this question of whether all art is political. What about art that doesn't have any obvious political subject matter? What about abstract art? What about the lovely little landscapes of Cornwall that my aunt paints? What’s political about those?
It wasn’t until I really understood the work of the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei that the penny finally dropped. He is one of the most influential artists in the world, and he’s also a human rights activist. He uses his art to raise awareness of human rights abuses and the restrictions of political freedoms around the world.
If there’s ever an artist whose life experiences are embedded in their work, it’s Ai Weiwei. He was born in 1957, in communist China when Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of the People’s Republic of China. And by this stage Mao had become more unhinged and extreme in his leadership and policies.
Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was a member of the communist party and was a leading intellectual in the 1950s. He was a poet.
Ai Qing with Ai Weiwei in 1958. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studios.
But in 1957, the year that Weiwei was born, Ai Qing was denounced by Chairman Mao and was sent into exile with his family to what is essentially China’s version of Siberia. And that's where the family stayed until Mao died in 1976.
Their living conditions were dire. Weiwei has described how the family lived in a hole in the ground covered by brushwood. He didn’t have much in the way of education, which during the Cultural Revolution consisted of learning the writings of Karl Marx and Chairman Mao. Ai Qing had had to burn his books.
So Weiwei had an unusual upbringing and a knowledge of the realities of what happens to you when you’re an individual thinker living in a totalitarian state.
In his adult life as an artist Ai Weiwei has been very outspoken against the Chinese government, and I’ll talk more in the video below about the art project that first got him noticed by the Chinese authorities. It led to him to being arrested in 2011 on trumped up tax-evasion charges. He was imprisoned and tortured for 81 days.
His response to this incarceration was a work called S.A.C.R.E.D., which consisted of six dioramas representing his memories of the experiences he had in the prison cell, with two guards just 80cm away from him at all times.
Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011). Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
But his imprisonment only made Weiwei more resolute in his effort to raise awareness through his art of human rights abuses, not only in China but around the world. And here’s an example of that. Back in 2014 he was invited to make some site-specific artworks on the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco bay. Alcatraz was for many years a prison and was decommissioned in 1969. Today it’s a tourist site, and thousands of people visit every year.
Through the artworks he installed there, Ai Weiwei challenged the 5,000 daily tourists to think about the idea that human rights are not a given. And to think about the sacrifices that individuals around the world make to fight for everyone’s freedoms.
One of the artworks, called Trace, consisted of six large carpets of lego blocks depicting the portraits of 175 prisoners of conscience, both past and present, from all around the world. There were famous people like Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. But also less well-known political prisoners, journalists, writers and civil rights activists. Accompanying their portraits were their personal stories so that people could find out more about why they had been imprisoned.
Ai Weiwei, Installation view of Trace (2014), part of the @Large exhibition on Alcatraz. Image courtesy of For-Site Foundation.
Visitors were then invited to write messages on postcards which would be sent out to political prisoners all over the world. Thousands of these postcards went out. Some of those postcards undoubtedly never got to the prisoners. But many of them did. And the messages those prisoners sent back and the stories that they told about how they felt when they received those messages of support were very moving.
Ai Weiwei knew what it was like to be imprisoned for speaking out for your rights and freedoms, and he wanted to activate people to be aware and to show solidarity for those who are brave enough to lead the fight.
Everything that Ai Weiwei creates has a purpose that is about questioning and challenging systems of power. And it’s not surprising when you think about his life experiences. His childhood, what happened to his father, his imprisonment by the Chinese authorities.
Ai Weiwei argues that it’s not possible to separate art and politics: when you are making some sort of artistic expression you are making a statement about freedom of speech. Artists who are able to express themselves in any way they want to - including my aunt painting her Cornish landscapes - are demonstrating a freedom of expression that you don’t have in countries where you don’t have political freedom.
Over the paywall jump: I talk about the art project that first got Ai Weiwei in trouble with the Chinese authorities. Plus more links to his projects, and Julie Mehretu on the political in abstract art. Join the community and let me know what you think!