Choices After Waking Up

Choices After Waking Up

Yiwu River Dam, Jinhua, China, 2002. (Courtesy Ai Weiwei)

Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters: Art, Architecture, and Activism
By Ai Weiwei
MIT Press, $60

Choices after waking up:
1. To live or to die?
2. To be true or to lie?
3. To be lively or to decay?
4. To love or to be forsaken?
5. To be wise or to be idiotic?
6. To smile or to be humiliated?
7. To denounce or to celebrate?
8. To be more courageous or to be more fearful?
9. To take action or to be brainwashed?
10. To be free or to be jailed?
Written by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on Twitter September 5, 2009 08:50:36

On January 11th, 2011, Ai Weiwei stood in a rubbled field just outside of Shanghai holding a piece of aluminum siding. Only three years prior local officials had asked—insisted even—that Weiwei design and build a new studio in the outskirts of the city. Weiwei’s studio would serve as the anchor of a new arts and cultural district that sought to attract tourists and an art market while creating an area where officials could easily monitor artistic activities. Weiwei took on the commission even though his relationship with government officials had worsened following his criticism of the Olympic Games in 2008. The eventual demolition of the studio in Shanghai was not entirely shocking, but also did not make complete sense, as is often the case in the relationship between the artist and his foes in power.

As soon as officials released the demolition order, it was shared over social media and a final party was planned—a feast of “river crab.” In Mandarin, the word for river crab sounds similar to “Harmony”—a concept used by the Chinese government to legitimize its regime of censorship. Strategically, Weiwei was placed under house arrest and prevented from attending the gathering. Hundreds of supporters, however, were not deterred by official actions and flocked from all over China to the remote site in Shanghai to enjoy the feast. A few days after the gathering, a demolition team took just forty-eight hours to bring down his studio, which had taken years to build. Weiwei, recently released, documented it all. Or as much as he was allowed.

The story of Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio shows the complex context in which his practice operates. A seemingly simple formal experiment for the design of a courtyard typology building with an expressive roof suddenly became a larger political statement. Or at least a political symbol that revealed power structures and brought people together in a moment rife with oppositional potential.

Fountain of Light in Weiwei’s studio, 2008.

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. Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters­: Art, Architecture, and Activism is the result of Weiwei and Pins’ collaboration, and is a comprehensive study of Weiwei’s works and ideas.

The book draws on Ai Weiwei’s full catalog of work from over twenty years of practice, organizing it into five sections of increasing scale. Each section is titled with an active verb: inhabit, build, collaborate, investigate, and engage. The book begins with Weiwei’s early career installations, moving up in scale into his architectural work and research—both as an individual and as part of a collaboration. As the book progresses, the work turns to the research Weiwei has been conducting on rapid urban change in Chinese urban areas. Finally, the book concludes with some of his performances and actions—in real and digital space—that approach activist fervor as they engage with larger systems of power. It is in this last category where you will find the story of Weiwei’s Shanghai studio—a form that became greater than itself through political conflict.

Weiwei invited 16 artists and architects to make a pavilion for a park in Jinhua, China. Herzog and de Meuron’s is titled Reading Space.

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.