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Who is Weiwei?

Evidence, a massive solo exhibition by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, comes to the Martin-Gropius-Bau with a vernissage on Apr 2 and general opening Apr 3. There’s no shortage of hype... but who exactly are we talking about?

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Photo by Gao Yuan

Evidence, a massive solo exhibition by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, comes to the Martin-Gropius-Bau. There’s no shortage of hype… but who exactly are we talking about?

The biggest taboo in art is to ask questions. Hype occurs, it changes, it expands and then it blows up right in front of your eyes. Before you know it, the artist or concept has become such a household name that you just look stupid when you try to stop and say “Wait a minute… who is this?” And there’s no better example than Ai Weiwei.

Weiwei rose to fame through his design of the main venue for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to later trigger major aggravation from the Chinese government due to a series of ‘antigovernment’ acts started through his advocacy for the victims of a horrible earthquake in Sichuan that claimed the lives of over 5000 school children that year.

He called out “the motherland”, landing him a traumatising 80-day jail sentence (which he documented at the 2011 Venice Biennale with SACRED – six large iron boxes into which visitors could peek to see sculptures recreating scenes from the artist’s detention), resulting in his first house arrest and then the revocation of his passport.

On the one hand, he has lost his personal freedom, and the fruits of his work, but on the other he has become a super-icon in the contemporary art world – and beyond. How does something so human become so superficial?

When he really started to get big, around 2009, I was in Munich and saw the massive, colourful installation he did on the facade of the Haus der Kunst as I drove by in a taxi. The posters advertising his show everywhere… that crazy hairdo and the statement “so sorry”.

I remember wondering who he was, where I had heard the name, a fleeting thought that passed through my head on my way to (yes) the Hofbräuhaus. Next came his ‘kidnapping” by the Chinese authorities; then came the buttons (“Where’s Ai Weiwei?”, in three languages and many colours) and the tote bags: “Free Ai Weiwei”, “Fuck the motherland”… huh? There was no time to ask what was happening. He had become such a hot merchandising product.

In this exhibition, supposedly his biggest to date, with the sneak preview from Monopol magazine about Ai Weiwei ‘going underground’ and a press conference that instead of art discussed legal problems, everyone is dragged back into the hype of the modern icon, but, where is… Ai Weiwei, the man and the artist? Can we still separate the art from the politics?

The hype is inevitably keeping the artist alive (and arguably protecting the man from the arbitrary force of the Chinese government). But the art world needs to be more. There’s the superstar and there’s Weiwei, the human being (check out Andreas Johnsen’s documentary Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case next month). And, somewhere, lurking behind the brand – his art.

AI WEIWEI – EVIDENCE Apr 3-Jul 7 | Martin-Gropius-Bau

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.