Download the original attachment
Contemporary Art in China
June 18, 2010
Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen: Art in Opposition
This paper will look at how the artist Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen
have used "opposition" to shape their identities and bodies of
artwork. These two artists established themselves as challengers of
existing paradigms and power structures. By setting themselves apart
from establishments like the Chinese government, history, or from
conventional art practices, Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen formed their
artistic identity and thematic drive behind their works. The paper
will specifically explore how the artists' have shown resistance in
the art, what they are opposing, and how this opposition has
contributed to their art creation.
Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen are but two of many Contemporary Chinese
artists who have created an "other" or object of resistance in making
art. However, in this paper I chose to closely examine these two
artists because they both target different power structures, and adopt
different methods in opposing the "other." Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen are
also considered the most provocative Chinese contemporary artists; Ai
Wei Wei is known for his public stance and gestures against the
Chinese government, and Xu Zhen is noted for attacking idea paradigms
such as unspoken rules on how art should be exhibited or the supposed
veracity of documentary films. Finally, I chose these artists because
Ai Wei Wei are is of the older, pioneering generation of Chinese
contemporary artists, while Xu Zhen is of the newer generation. The
paper can thus cover a wide time span of Contemporary Chinese art
Ai Wei Wei
Ai Wei Wei (1960 –) is viewed as one of China's most
controversial artists and well-respected social activist. Despite
being labeled "a dissident to be wary of" by the Chinese government
(or perhaps because he was), his blog attracts 17 million people and
has successfully mobilized popular action. Ai was awarded the
prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chinese Contemporary Art
Awards, founded in 1998 by Uli Sigg1 (Birmingham).
Ai Wei Wei's works have always been political and critical of
power structures. Ai Wei Wei first entered the Chinese Contemporary
art scene (and many would argue, help start it) with his involvement
in the Stars Group and 1979 Stars Exhibition. The Stars exhibit, hung
on a fence between the museum and a public park, dissented against
Museum standards of good or bad art, and opposed the authority of the
museum in being the sole space for art exhibitions ("Ai Wei Wei at
Haines"). After Ai Wei Wei's return to China from New York in 1993, he
continued creating militant and subversive works. His series of
1999-2003 "Study of Perspective" showing his middle finger raised to
the White House, Eiffel Tower, and Tiananmen Square blatantly showed
opposition to symbols of power and elitism (Barboza). In addition, in
2000, Ai Wei Wei curated the shocking "Fuck Off" exhibition in time
for the Third Shanghai Biennale. The exhibition, according to Britta
Erickson in On the Edge, was a reaction against the "structure of the
art world" and a system that follows the judgment of critics and
curators in valuing art. Ai Wei Wei's exhibition was a powerful
statement of defiance against institutions and art dealers, and showed
unconventional art such as a dog skeleton in a glass case supposedly
containing poisonous gas, or a chair filled with meat (Erickson 41).
Through these early works, Ai Wei Wei shaped for himself an identity
of militancy and, especially, of uncooperative attitude towards the
government and authorities.
However, increasingly Ai Wei Wei has focused on creating art
with a more timely and definitive political message, and on social
activism. Ai is very active in blogging (in Sin or Bulog.cn) or
Twittering (Colonello)2. In fact, Ai stated that he wanted to stop
doing art and focus on politics (Toy). His main ideological value, as
revealed in a 2008 interview with the Guardian, is the freedom of
choice. Ai Wei Wei's favorite target of criticism is the Chinese
government, which, according to the artist, has failed to represent
freedom but rather, corruption and autocracy. In the interview, Ai Wei
Wei explains his refusal to attend the Bird Nest Stadium Opening
Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics for precisely this reason. He
did not believe that China changed ("Ai Wei Wei: why"). Ai Wei Wei had
co-designed the Bird Nest Stadium with the Swiss architectural firm
Herzog & de Meuron, but pulled out his support (and name) from the
project in a blatant public gesture against the Chinese authorities.
One of Ai Wei Wei's recent political projects is the 2007
"Sichuan Earthquake Names Project." By using his popular blog as a
communication platform, Ai Wei Wei investigated how government
corruption contributed to the collapse of many school buildings3. In
addition, because the government refused to publish a list of the
names of killed students, Ai Wei Wei mobilized researchers and
volunteers to do this task. The Names Project discovered the names of
5,190 students. Ai Wei Wei's project shed a sharp, illuminating light
on corrupt government practices. He opposed the government's actions
on trying to veil the situation (Toy).
Another of Ai Wei Wei's social activist works is his auction of
a bag of Sanlu Milk Powder in cooperation with Vitamin Art Gallery4.
The money from the auction was used to buy coats and supplies for
people appealing grievances to the government. Ai remarked that he was
able to "turn a small [art] matter into a relief aid fund for rights
To Ai Wei Wei, "protect[ing] the right of expression is the
central part of an artist's activity." In order to do this, he
fiercely critiques the government and other power structures through
this art or social work (Colonello). Voicing himself and his opinions,
to him, is a responsibility as a human being. As stated in his
interview with The Guardian, "it is not a choice, [but] it's the way I
live" ("Ai Wei Wei: why"). Resisting repression is the driving force
and purpose behind Ai Wei Wei's identity and art. And in order to
achieve this mission, Ai Wei Wei has embraced means other than art
such as blogging and guerilla investigations5.
In addition, this higher social purpose imbues Ai Wei Wei's art
with deeper meaning. Ai's art holds a message beyond simply creating
something aesthetically beautiful. The art is imbued with power
because it refers to specific events and ideas6, and reacts against
specific injustices such as the Sichuan earthquake in his "Snake
Ceiling" work7. There is more concrete meaning behind the art that
viewers can reference to. Furthermore, Ai uses criticism against the
government as a platform for creation and contribution. Through
"destructive" or aggressive actions of criticizing the government, Ai
also "creates" and "builds up" the political arena. Ai has helped
pressure the Chinese government to become more transparent and
accountable. For example, after the "Sichuan Earthquake Names
Project," the government was pressured to change the official casualty
numbers. Another example is the Sanlu milk powder auction. The work
critiqued the government's corruption, and at the same time, made
concrete aid to those appealing to the government.
Although I mostly dwelled on Ai Wei Wei's opposition to the
Chinese government, it is important to note that he has other targets
of resistance as well. Ai Wei Wei is a complex and nuanced artist. For
example, Ai Wei Wei's 1990s series of painting and smashing ancient
urns with a Coca Cola logo or with bright pop-like colors critiqued
how society has no place for valuable history: no museums were willing
to accept the vases which dated back to the 3000-5000 B.C.; the
priceless urns were considered trash. Ai Wei Wei also dealt with the
divorce between reality and fantasy in his "Fairytale 1001" (2007)
project by making something fantastical into reality8. He does not
only engage in political opposition, but looks at the contradictions
we hold in life itself and our daily experiences. This sense of
humanity and maturity in Ai Wei Wei's work has evolved over time. At
first Ai took more crude means to provoke (such as raising his middle
finger to the White House or smashing urns), but it seems Ai is now
more nuanced and subtle in his art (his "Map of China" (2004) does not
scream controversial commentary on China and Taiwan).
One may ask, if Ai Wei Wei is solely motivated by social
activism and resistance to autocracy, why does he not give up art
completely as blogging and social media have proved more effective
than art in moving the masses9? However, I believe that despite all of
Ai Wei Wei's hype on how he does not believe in art for arts sake, he
also knows that there is value in beauty. I personally respect how the
political content of his pieces do not compromise the aesthetics of
his creations. The Chandelier (2002), which supposedly satirizes the
Chinese government taste in aesthetics, is beautiful. So is Ai Wei
Wei's Snake Ceiling (2009) work. The black and white colors of the
backpacks give a solemn, funereal impression. This, in conjunction to
the snake-like coil of the work, powerfully evokes the monster-like
Sichuan earthquake that devoured school children. It is true that
social media is more effective in mobilizing people. However, I feel
that there is still something that can be embodied in art and
transferred to the viewer – something more gutteral and resonant in
the soul – that can't be done through other means. Art can be
powerful, and I believe that Ai Wei Wei realizes this.
As I have argued, militancy and resistance have largely shaped
and motivated Ai Wei Wei's works. However, Ai is also a very complex
and nuanced artist. The lens of opposition is only one way (and
ideally it should be used with other lenses of examination for greater
honesty) in studying this controversial figure.
Xu Zhen (1977 –) engages in video, performance, installation,
and photography works. Unlike Ai Wei Wei, he is less politically
driven, and challenges cultural taboos (such as sex) and paradigms in
the art world. His target of resistance is simply, the "norm" or what
is considered socially orthodox. According to his 2006 interview with
Lu Leiping, Xu Zhen's mentality in making art "was the same as a
hooligan going out for a fight. Hooligans have attitude! Hooliganism
is a way of life, an attitude towards life" (Leiping). Xu Zhen engages
in art with a fighting attitude.
Xu Zhen's works "1.86 Meters" (2005) and "Starving of Sudan"
(2007) challenge the foundations behind documentary works. It is an
attack on the accepted practices of the art world. The "1.86 Meters"
piece is a documentary film that shows Xu Zhen climbing to the summit
of Mt. Everest and sawing off 1.86 meters (also Xu Zhen's physical
height) of the mountaintop. The supposed tip of the mountain was
"moved" to the gallery space, where the displaced chunk of ice was
supplemented with drawings, texts, and related materials. However, the
whole event was fictitious and shot in Xu Zhen's studio. Thus, this
work challenges the unassuming trust viewers give to documentaries.
The audience was falsely led to believe that Xu Zhen had really
climbed the mountain. According to art historian Lu Leiping, the piece
"overturn[ed]" and "disrupt[ed]" accepted social and historical
principles. Because the event of Xu Zhen climbing the mountain was
fictitious, audience members also began to challenge Xu Zhen's
published 8848.13 meter height of Mount Everest (Leiping). The
audience did not know what to believe and what to listen to with a
grain of salt.
Xu Zhen's "Starving of Sudan" (2007) challenged the autonomy and
objective "non-presence" of a documentary photographer when he is
photographing his surroundings. Xu Zhen recreated the famous 1993
photograph of a Sudanese child about to be preyed on by a vulture by
Kevin Carter. As soon as the photographer clicked the shutter, the
vulture carried the child away. This photo challenged the ethical
responsibility of the photographer. Xu Zhen highlighted this moral
tension, as well as the nonchalance of the audience in viewing such a
situation, by placing an African American child (watched by his
mother) next to a stuffed vulture. According to Lee Ambrozy, audience
members in high heels would grin "how cute" to the child, and leave
Xu Zhen also challenged the art world paradigm by curating
controversial exhibits. Xu Zhen was co-founder of BizArt, a non-profit
artist support group, which pioneered new art forms and art
experimentation in China. The "Art for Sale" exhibit (2007) recreated
a supermarket of altered or invented consumer products that people
could purchase cheaply (Bepler). The exhibit challenged the
traditional view of art as removed from daily life. It also challenged
the image of art showed in galleries as priceless or unattainable to
the average person. Xu Zhen's experimental "Twin" exhibition or "Fang
Mingzhen & Fang Mingzhu" (2002) challenged the art world rule that no
two same pieces or similar works can be displayed in the same gallery.
The gallery was composed of two mirror-image spaces that showed
similar, very slightly altered, works. Xu Zhen's performance piece
"March 6" also upturned the exhibition dynamics of audience and art
piece. 200 students and workers were each employed to follow one
person, at two meters distance, throughout the entire exhibit. The
audience members were "watched" by the art (the performance artists),
reversing their role from being the viewer to the viewed (Leiping).
Xu Zhen not only challenges the institutional practices and
norms in the art world, he challenges basic assumptions in daily life.
A key example is "In Just a Blink of an Eye" (2007) which challenges
gravity itself. An performer would remain frozen mid-way in a fall.
This was achieved through the support of hidden iron rods. The piece
"Never Falls" (2006), a larger-than-life coin, never stops spinning
and therefore, never falls ("Xu").
What does opposition and "hooliganism" do for Xu Zhen? Like Ai
Wei Wei, Xu Zhen's militancy against the status quo is a major driving
force behind his works. Overturning the norm is a major source of
inspiration for him, often moving Xu Zhen to experiment with unusual
art media (e.g. performance) and subject matter (e.g. sex). I
mentioned how Ai Wei Wei engages in creation through destruction; by
critiquing the government, Ai sometimes impacts the government's
actions for the better or he creates social projects that make
concrete change. Xu Zhen also "builds up" through his opposition. Xu
Zhen stretched the boundaries of the art world with regards to subject
matter, philosophy, and media through his experimentations. Xu Zhen
also forces the audience to open their minds to new kinds of art and
ideas, just as his "March 6" work allowed the audience can become the
One major difference between Xu Zhen and Ai Wei Wei's objectives
in "resisting something" is who they are making art for. I feel that
Xu Zhen's art is very self-absorbed. He makes a project if he feels
"it is interesting." In fact, in an interview Xu Zhen says that is the
sole reason why he made a video bashing a cat on the floor (Xiaoyun).
Xu Zhen makes art for himself, and is controversial for his personal
satisfaction. Ai Wei Wei, on the other hand, is increasingly motivated
to make art for the people. He quotes "there is no art for arts sake"
(Colonello). Ai Wei Wei believes that, if he is to continue art, it
must be political so that it will help society and people. This may be
why Ai Wei Wei's recent artworks like the "Snake Ceiling" are very
specific in reference and meaning, connecting back to critique on the
Chinese government. Xu Zhen's art, unlike Ai Wei Wei, explores his
personal interests such as "sex" (a provoking topic in itself).
Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen are both driven by militancy in their art
creations and identity. Ai Wei Wei is more politically focused; his
predominant "enemy" is the Chinese government. He opposes power
structures that restrict freedom of expression. Xu Zhen mostly
challenges idea paradigms and unspoken rules in the art world and in
daily life. Opposition has been the thematic link, source of
inspiration, and motivator throughout both Xu Zhen and Ai Wei Wei's
pieces, be it video, performance, or installation. Opposition in the
form of art has also allowed the artists to "contribute" to their very
target of resistance. Ai Wei Wei is contributing to the increased
accountability and transparency of the Chinese government through his
social critiques and political art. Xu Zhen widened the field of art
and exhibition by questioning its boundaries. He also tipped over idea
paradigms, even if just for a moment, like that of gravity via his
I understand that analyzing both artists solely through the lens
of "dissidence" and "resistance" is too simplifying. Ai Wei Wei, for
one, is motivated to do art not only for political action. He cares
for aesthetics as well. Simplifying the artists' very target of
resistance, such as the government for Ai Wei Wei, would also be
incorrect. However, looking at how defiance and opposition have
shaped the identities and works of these artists is important. This is
because, I believe, our identities are to a considerable extent formed
from setting ourselves apart from our surroundings10. "Not being
something" can define one's identity just as "being something" is. In
addition, I believe that opposition against something – the very
mentality of "fighting" – can serve as powerful drivers of action and
fuel for art creation. As it has been for Ai Wei Wei and Xu Zhen, it
may serve as a purpose in life or role as an artist. In order to
deeply understand Xu Zhen and Ai Wei Wei, looking at how they have set
themselves apart from the norm and power structures is integral.
"Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery." Happenstand. 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 17 June
"Ai Weiwei: Why I'll Stay Away from the Olympics' Opening Ceremony."
The Guardian. The Guardian, 7 Aug. 2008. Web. 17 June 2010.
Ambrozy, Lee. "Xu Zhen: Impossible Is Nothing." Artreview.com. Web. 18
June 2010. <http://www.artreview.com/forum/topic/show?id=1474022:Topic:576706>.
Barboza, David, and Lynn Zhang. "The Clown Scholar: Ai Weiwei."
ArtZineChina.com. ArtZineChina.com. Web. 18 June 2010.
Bepler, Sine. "ShanghART Supermarket." ShanghART Gallery Shanghai. 26
Nov. 2007. Web. 18 June 2010.
Birmingham, Lucy. "Who Is Ai Weiwei?" ARTINFO. ArtInfo, 10 Aug. 2009.
Web. 17 June 2010.
Colonello, Nataline. "An Interview with Ai Weiwei." ArtZineChina.com.
ArtZine China, 10 Aug. 2008. Web. 17 June 2010.
Leiping, Lu. "Xu Zhen: Provoked and Provoking Art." ShanghArt Gallery.
ShanghArt Gallery, June 2006. Web. 18 June 2010.
Ma, Wendy. "Picasso of China or Voice of Dissent: Who Is Ai Wei Wei?
Profile « Art Radar Asia." Art Radar Asia. 22 Sept. 2009. Web. 17 June
MacKinnon, Rebecca. "Ai Weiwei: On Taking Individual Responsibility."
RConversation. 22 Jan. 2009. Web. 17 June 2010.
Ng, David. "Artist Ai Weiwei Makes Rare U.S. Appearance to Talk about
Digital Activism." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 Mar. 2010.
Web. 17 June 2010.
Toy, Mary Anne. "The Artist as an Angry Man." The Age. The Age, 19
Jan. 2008. Web. 17 June 2010.
Xiaoyun, Chen. "An Interview with Xu Zhen." ShanghART Gallery
Shanghai. 2001. Web. 18 June 2010.
"Xu Zhen - Selected Works." James Cohan Gallery. Web. 17 June 2010.