In grappling with how to grasp work that cannot be neatly placed in any one disciplinary category, Ai Weiwei and co-editor Anthony Pins turn to space as the lens with the most potential to unify the complex practice. Space, they argue, allows room for both physical intervention as well as the psycho-social actions that happen within it.
Woven through the over forty projects documented in the book are essays by leading art critics and historians such as Brendan McGetrick, with two entries, Daniela Janser and An Xiao Mina. Similarly to the practice, and its projects, the voices included are varied—talking about everything from light and urbanism to memes and online activism. On this latter issue, Mina looks at Ai Weiwei’s online activity as showing the potential for memes and jokes to be a tool for political organization and even change. On the power of Weiwei’s online presence, Mina says:
“To a citizenry regularly told by their government what they cannot do, the act of speaking out is a powerful political act in and of itself. It is already a significant change. Ai’s embrace of internet culture sends a simple, powerful message to other concerned citizens. You can get naked. You can make a silly pun. You can Photoshop a sunflower seed on a grown man’s face. You can do a horsie dance against the government. You can make a short documentary about injustices you’ve witnessed. You can criticize your leaders. You too, can play this game.” (Page 451).
The message is simple, even if some actions seem simple or even like silly games (a middle finger risen against a banner of Mao), they can have real power within the context Weiwei operates. The book also shows that a small questioning of power can have real and brutal consequences. The book is not shy about showing some of the real, and at times violent, reactions that Weiwei’s work has elicited. From the demolition of his Shanghai studio, described above, to documentation of his 2009 cerebral hemorrhage after a police attack. The crime that led
to that confrontation was Weiwei’s advocacy on behalf of children whom died in shoddily built structures after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake hit the Sichuan region in 2008.
The book captures the turmoil of 2009 in Ai Weiwei’s own words through selected texts from his Twitter account. In that occasion, he wondered what his choices were upon waking. Weiwei’s other writings on a host of issues are present in the book, which includes interviews, sections of his blog, and even selected tweets and other social media interactions. The sections taken from his blog show thoughts and opinions on many subjects, including architecture. He writes that his design creates “leeway and possibility” which gives way to freedom. Weiwei’s writing always shows a sense of immediacy, a clamoring out to a culture he wants both to be a part of and to help change.
Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters: Art, Architecture, and Activism serves as a roadmap and a warning at a time in which many are asking for change within traditional art and architectural practices. On the one hand, Weiwei’s practice is a case study for a new way of working in space—one that easily transcends disciplines, looking holistically at complex issues, and showing flexibility in reacting to challenges. His is the type of practice in which architecture, landscape, and urbanism is one of many tools available to achieve a larger goal. Often, the larger goal for Ai Weiwei is no less than social and political change—to engage deeply in political issues. On the other hand, his practice and the official reactions it elicits serve as a warning about the price space practitioners should be willing to pay for that deep engagement. A complete project, one which advocates for change, may mean that the things you build could come crashing down.