Ai Weiwei’s Fight For Freedom

Ai Weiwei is a world famous Chinese artist that uses his controversial art to portray his strong political and social views. His works such as The Study of Perspective and Dropping China have an underlying political and social meaning used to activate the oppressed people of China. The Chinese government and traditional citizens see Ai as a very unlawful person that is offending the cultures and rules of many people and countries. On the contrary, abused citizens see him as a hero that is bringing freedom to many oppressed people around the world.

In Klayman’s award winning documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Ethan Cohen, Ai Weiwei’s first NYC Gallerist, expresses that Ai’s goal is to shock you with his statements to prove his views on government and culture, provoking action in the views and thoughts of Chinese citizens. This is exemplified in Dropping China when an ancient pot is smashed, symbolizing that Ai wants change in the culture (Klayman, 2012). The issue with Ai’s very forward way of making a political statement is that the government and many traditional citizens find his works offensive.

Ai constantly runs into trouble with the government. During one instance, police “raided his hotel and beat him” (Pilling, 2010, para. 2). The reason Ai risks his life for art is because he is trying to bring a voice to the people who want change. He does this by objectifying and building his statement as grand as possible. Ai uses his artwork The Study of Perspective, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, as a vehicle for a political statement. He dislikes how culture is set by the Chinese government and how it is practically impossible to change. His voice cannot be heard because of the government’s limits.

I believe his artworks should not be limited by the Chinese government, they are a form of his freedom of speech that is being taken away. The hermeneutic tool, semiotics, “is a way of putting into words something that many of us already know” (Howells, 2003, p. 95). Ai uses semiotics in his pieces by presenting the physical gesture or object. In The Study of Perspective this is Ai’s hand making a symbol. The signified part of this gesture is the association of this symbol with a meaning. The meaning of this symbol is a very derogatory and harsh way of saying he doesn’t agree.

This use of semiotics makes the specific work of art very easy to comprehend when first observing it. Ira Robbins, Professor at American University Washington College of Law, states that “since 1886, the middle finger has evolved into perhaps the most commonly used insulting gesture in the United States” (Robbins, 2008, p. 1425). The fact that this statistic is based off of the United States makes it even more prominent towards Ai’s use. Ai exclaims to BBC it is ridiculous that after sixty years of rule the government has still not given its citizens the right to vote.

The Chinese government limits their citizens rights to gain selfish profits (BBC, 2012, para. 4-5). Ai uses this Westernized symbol to insult the Chinese government, he wants to activate change in social and political reforms. In The Study of Perspective Ai is not only flipping off Chinese monuments, his next most prominent image is him flipping off the United States White House. In an interview with World Policy Journal, Ai expresses that “it’s a mistake for whoever deals with an unjust society to hide their opinions… Every deal made here [in China] happens because the rights of so many people are ignored.

You profit at the expense of the people who have been put in jail or who are missing, just because they spoke the truth” (Andelman, 2012, para. 42). For this reason Ai also flips off the US government, not based on the rules they implement, but for the international affairs that they neglect for their own well-being. Government officials and traditional people see Ai’s art as very offensive toward government and culture, his works The Study of Perspective and Dropping China are accurate examples of this issue.

He has also taken nude pictures in front of government buildings and other locations, either of himself or other people. Sui-Lee Wee, formerly a reporter for Thomson Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, reported that the “Beijing police questioned Ai’s videographer… for allegedly spreading pornography online by taking nude photographs of Ai and four women” (Wee, 2011, para. 3). The Chinese government sees this as the publishing of pornography therefore making Ai seem like a criminal, but from his point of view and his followers point of view it is a work of art that portrays his rights to freedom of expression.

Another instance of Ai getting in trouble with the law was Ai’s problem with tax evasion. Henri Neuendorf, an Associate Editor at Artnet, examines an interview between BBC’s Andrew Marr and Liu Xiaoming, China’s UK Ambassador. Liu states that “the reason [Ai] was under investigation was because of his economic crime. He was under suspicion of fraudulent accounting, [and] destroying accounting documents” (Neuendorf, 2015, para. 5). Liu sees this as a very unlawful crime from someone with such high stature in the social world.

Ai uses The Study of Perspective as a political vehicle by giving it a deeper meaning. The initial reason Ai strongly disliked the Chinese government was from his dark past. Writer for Plaid Zebra, a political and social lifestyle magazine, Connor Brian describes a story from Ai’s childhood. When Ai was a young boy, Ai and his family were sent to a labour camp. He watched his father be beaten and clean bathrooms for more than two hundred people. This was all because his father was a famed Chinese poet that the government disliked (Brian, 2011, para. ).

After experiencing this Ai has been creating art to undermine the government and its control on the people of China. Charles Merewether, current Curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery at Georgian National Museum of Art and professor at Baptist University, comments in Ai’s book Ai Weiwei: Works: Beijing 1993-2003 that in The Study of Perspective it documents Ai “performing his gesture against various political and cultural landmarks” (Ai, Merewether, 2003, p. 90).

Ai does this to show the government that he doesn’t want to follow the same restricting laws or stay within the traditional Chinese cultures. Barbara Pollack, writer and editor at Art News, describes how the larger exhibition that this artwork falls under, in Chinese is translated as “Uncooperative Attitude” but the more straightforward and more preferred title was the English translation. Which translates to “Fuck Off”, this exhibition title further explains Ai’s feelings towards the Chinese government (Pollack, 2010, para. 1).

Morgan Falconer, Alan Goldstein, Michael Zurakhinsky, and the Art Story Contributors believe the most prominent picture from The Study of Perspective is Tiananmen Square. This location is also known as the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, but Ai sees it as the location of a very horrifying government related event that killed many innocent people. In 1989 state soldiers shot and killed peaceful protesters in front of this monument and the Chinese government to this day has not released any information on the terrible event (Falconer, Goldstein, Zurakhinsky, et al. 2016, para. 3).

The government is hiding information on a massacre that happened years ago because they are scared to ruin their reputation, they are restricting their people from the truth of the situation. This gives Ai another reason to neglect their rule, he creates political artworks to activate the people of China and show them that the government is corrupt. Another similar art piece under the Exhibition of “Fuck Off” is Dropping China, represented here in Figure 3.

This piece is a set of three pictures in chronological order of Ai dropping an ancient Han Dynasty Urn and letting it smash into the ground. Each picture represent a stage of China’s cultural life. The first of him holding the Urn shows how long the culture has lasted over time, the second of the Urn in mid air resembles the ‘letting go’ of present cultures, and the third the Urn hitting the ground. Ai’s expressions do not change from the second to third picture showing how the meaning the Urn is only important to some people of the culture, making this third action insignificant (Merewether, 2008, p. 0).

This piece hints more on the cultural dislikes of Ai’s views. He created this artwork to show that it has been to long since a cultural change. That was the point of breaking this extremely old Urn, if someone in today’s world is concerned with a Urn from that far into the past it is time for change. In conclusion, Ai Weiwei has shown me that there are many ways to interpret a set or a single photograph. By using Howells interpretation of semiotics many hidden means can be discovered.

This method of interpreting can increase the analyzing that can be done on pieces of art. Ai has many great thoughts that he portrays through art, I believe his ideas aren’t just for the Chinese people, they expand into many different countries that need to regain or gain more political and cultural freedoms. The pictures help the reader visualize and in the process discover the meaning of the artworks. Researching Ai Weiwei made me realize how easy life is living in a Western country.

North Americans are actually given freedom of speech and press which allows us to have a say in what our government and culture evolve into. Creators from many different art forms have come to follow Ai’s footsteps. The Russian all female punk, rock band Pussy Riot arose and caused great commotion. Out of eleven band members “three young women of this group have been sentenced to two years in prison for challenging the corruption of the Orthodox Church and the thugocracy of Vladimir Putin” (Panero, 2012, para. 0).

Along with Pussy Riot, Britain’s media famed artist Anish Kapoor joined forces with Ai to take a stand for the millions of refugees. They marched together in a “protest walk across London carrying a blanket to symbolize the plight of millions of refugees” (Munoz-Alonso, 2015, para. 3). Ai Weiwei has a growing impact on political and social artwork and his immense portfolio will continue to expand for years to come.