Which brings me to why I am of two minds about Ai as an artist, despite my admiration of his work as a valiant activist and even of his ability to create works like Straight. For every piece as finely judged as that, he’s made as many or more that are out of tune with themselves, works in which aesthetic missteps trip him up. “That’s irrelevant!” is what he would probably say if he heard my objections. “I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice,” he told the Hirshhorn Museum’s chief curator, Kerry Brougher. But it’s dangerous for an artist to be so cavalier about aesthetics. Most of Ai’s works are quite beautiful, or at least highly finished, but their beauty often seems a mere quotation of a beauty seen in another work of art. This wink should not be mistaken for a challenge of existing conventions of beauty. By exhibiting a field of twisted-up rebar, Ai is undoubtedly trying to challenge the viewer’s sense of art. And yet as anti-art the work is pat and mundane, as if Ai had been mimicking not the force of the terrible energy of an earthquake on flimsy building materials, but the routine pictorial gestures of the meandering brushstrokes of a second-rate Abstract Expressionist painting and immortalizing them in metal.
In Hanging Man, Ai regales Martin with a telling anecdote about his time as a student at the Parsons School of Design, in New York City (Ai lived there from 1983 through 1993). He recalls a drawing class where he flaunted his technique by making “a very nice figure drawing with ink and brush, which requires a lot of control.” His fellow students were intimidated by his abilities, as he recalls: “‘Wow! If this guy can draw like this what can we do? We can never get to this point,’” they thought. But his teacher, the painter Sean Scully, dismissed it as the worst thing he had ever seen. “The whole class was shocked by what he said and also I was shocked because in that moment I immediately understood. The other students had put a lot of effort trying to just draw a little bit, maybe a hand or a foot or something, but it never really worked. They tried to erase it. Then they tried again. Their effort was so strong, so sincere and their actions were so much more important than someone who is so skillful producing a so-called beautiful work just using a convention. So that moment I changed and I knew in a second that I had to give up all those skills I had learnt in China.”
As so often with artists, even the story Ai tells against himself, the story in which he gets his comeuppance, redounds to his favor: he started out with great chops, the envy of his peers—and then immediately got the point that art is so much more than technique. But I have to wonder if he ever took Scully’s point to heart. He hasn’t abandoned conventional skills so much as farmed them out to his employees. Ai sees himself as a conceptual artist, an heir of Marcel Duchamp (and of Duchamp’s American disciple Jasper Johns, from one of whose paintings the title “According to What?” is borrowed). But too often—and he is far from the only one of whom this is true—the conceptual artist seems more like an art director, because the underlying idea is overwhelmed by its high-finish realization.
One example is China Log (2005), a quasi- cylindrical horizontal sculpture made of gorgeous wood salvaged from the pillars of old temples and assembled, we are told, by “using traditional Chinese joinery techniques.” Through the center of this artificial log runs a cavity whose contours are those of the map of China. The exhibition catalog helpfully spells out the work’s intended meaning: “that the present Chinese nation has been put together from a variety of cultural and historical elements.” Usually I roll my eyes at such bromides, wondering why it is thought necessary to oversimplify artists’ ideas in this manner, but in this case I have to admit that Ai’s notion might have been just that banal. If you were looking for a nation of which it wasn’t true, you’d probably have to find a mighty small country—the Republic of San Marino maybe? Compare the wall text with the biting sarcasm of Ai’s blog posts about rebellions in Guizhou province, in China’s southwest, as well as in Tibet: “Today’s harmonious society was not easy to come by. As long as we follow in the firm leadership of the Communist Party of China, any unlawful attempts to fragment the motherland…will ultimately come to a bad end.” He is all too familiar with the imperial nature of the “joinery” through which his country, like our own, has been cobbled together, but whatever his intention, the beautiful piece of useless furniture that is China Log is meant to make it all worthwhile. Here, aesthetics—in the sense of beautiful appearance—trumps concept, to the work’s detriment.
As with its finish, scale and quantity too often trump concept in Ai’s work. The most obvious example is probably his most famous piece, the installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010–11. This is surely another of Ai’s representations of China, not by way of its map but as a metaphor for its vast population. But the same meaning would have been communicated by one-hundredth or even one-thousandth of the seeds; there is something self-defeating about a work that seems also to be a bid for a kind of Guinness Book of World Records notoriety—the artwork with more individual elements than any other in world history—but that ends up presenting a vast prospect of dreary sameness. Nothing in “According to What?” has been made on that scale, but Ai is always willing to try to overwhelm the viewer with manyness. There’s He Xie (2010), an installation of 3,200 porcelain crabs, or the innumerable ink-jet prints of Ai’s snapshots with which a wall is papered to make his Provisional Landscapes (2002–08). Ai also dabbles in muchness: how much tea had to be used to make the nearly six-foot-tall sculpture Teahouse (2009), which is—yes—a basic geometrical house form made entirely from bricks of delicious-smelling tea? Somehow I often remain underwhelmed.
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The book Hanging Man takes its title from one of Ai’s earliest works, a 1983 sculpture made from a clothes hanger bent into the shape of Marcel Duchamp’s profile. Ai’s insistence that he is a Duchampian artist may be misleading. An essential characteristic of Duchamp’s ready-made is being visually unimpressive, which is precisely what makes it into a tool for thinking about the nature of art. Duchamp liked to emphasize that in choosing his objects, “This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste—in fact a complete anesthesia.” As the critic Boris Groys recently explained, Duchamp “wanted to reduce all levels of expressivity and introduce into the valorized cultural context an object that, situated as it was outside the artistic tradition, did not belong to the complex system of cultural associations, meanings and references. This strategy typified the classic avant-garde approach, which preferred to make use of non-traditional, profane, ‘insignificant’ objects to get rid of the ballast of traditional cultural symbolism.” For Duchamp, the ready-made was thus a kind of abstraction.
In our now-globalized art world, this neutrality is always something of an illusion. Only people who share the same background or context can view the same art with indifference. To someone from a tropical climate, Duchamp’s snow shovel might be an object of intense exoticism, evoking all kinds of “associations, meanings and references” about the cultures of the North, while his urinal can hardly be so easily detached from the French artist’s sense of his adopted country, as summed up in his lover Beatrice Wood’s quip that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Like so many artists today, Ai has taken Duchamp as his starting point in order to do just the opposite of what Duchamp was trying to do—to create an essentially literary and moralizing art replete with beauty and spectacle. It’s through the backstories of his materials, which connect them to specific histories, that Ai invokes his subject matter without having to resort to traditional representation. For Groys, the irony is that the Duchampian ready-made has become the basis for an updated version of the salon art of the nineteenth century, what used to be called “grand machines.” The only difference, Groys says, “is that the goals of subjective expression and relevant content are now attained by way of a particular strategy for selecting objects from the profane world, not by their representation on canvas or in stone.”
To this academic formula, Ai has succeeded in adding something specifically Chinese—or so it seems if one accepts the view of Victor Segalen, the French writer and pioneering Sinologist, who declared that Chinese sculpture shares four key features: “It is monumental, it is funerary (but profane), it is imperial, and it is historical.” The imperial part comes with a twist, for Ai is a scathing critic of the empire under which he lives—and yet his viewpoint is not that of an individual at odds with the mainstream. Instead, he sees himself as a spokesman for the whole. Maybe that’s why he needs to make works that are vast—not simply to symbolize the vastness and multiplicity that is China but to establish an overview on it, albeit an opposition overview; it’s still one from which random differences among the millions of individual sunflower seeds are neither very perceptible nor very significant.