Ai Weiwei, Vladimir Tatlin, and the dream that speaks

Detail installation view of Rooted Upon, Ai Weiwei via Zimbio

One of the works on view is an installation of 100 roots and tree parts growing out of the Haus der Kunst’s floor, quite literally engaging in an active open dialogue with its past, while maintaining an upper hand… The roots are placed on “Soft Ground” a work comprised of 929 tiles that are a faithful reproduction of the patterns of the floor beneath them.

Where is Ai Weiwei? It’s been five days, and there’s no word of his whereabouts, condition or treatment since he was arrested on his way to Hong Kong on Sunday. His wife is worried, and she’s seen enough already to  know when to worry. His sister says he’s warned the family to expect this. His mother is bracing herself.

The Chinese authorities are utilising several disingenuous discrediting techniques and trying to invoke the “law” – citing financial wrongdoing, and asking the world to respect its domestic jurisdiction etc. This sort of sand-in-the-face diversionism is designed to catch people out who don’t know enough to refute it, even though they know it’s wrong. (It’s what the Tea Partiers are currently doing in the USA, too.) And it’s not coming from just within China, either – an earlier post about Ai Weiwei here on this blog drew a very strange comment from the USA, which is kind of boringly staggering, but kind of forensically interesting insofar as all that goes. I did try to get some comment on it from people far more able to cite chapter and verse than I am on this subject, but it wasn’t forthcoming; I wonder why…?

There is a crackdown happening: in the west we think things in China are easing up, but it seems not so much. Other artists and human rights activists and lawyers have been arrested recently and some of the stories are horrifying. Ai Weiwei himself was beaten in 2009 to the extent of having a bleed on the brain, and had emergency surgery in Germany. Bob Dylan played in Beijing yesterday, which somehow under the circumstances just feels wrong to me, really… Even the sober New York Times recently concluded in an editorial – now, I’m annoyed with myself because I had this quoted and linked, and then decided to delete it, and have now decided to reinstate it, but the NYT has taken it down – it basically said that, as this has happened just before a visit from a Secretary of State to China, the government should cancel the visit and ask “in what dungeon Ai Weiwei has been thrown.” As I say, there’s no sign of it now, but I had it copied and pasted, so I know I didn’t imagine it.

From the Guardian:

In an interview last year, Ai told the Guardian that he recognised the state might take action against him and said security officials had visited his bank.

But he added: “I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK.”

Now, Ai Weiwei is a formal and deeply elegant conceptual artist, sculptor and architect; his eyes face outwards from himself. Here is a picture of something I love, something really internationalist and beautiful, that marks Ai Weiwei out as a member of the world art community – and that is the thing the Chinese authorities can’t cope with. It is an aspect in which he doesn’t need them, doesn’t fear them, doesn’t seek their approval. It’s like a special language in which he can speak to people all over the world, and it’s a language bureaucrats can’t speak, though they can sometimes understand it.

But first, a small art history lesson. In 1917 Vladimir Tatlin designed, as the ultimate expression of Modernism and the hope for the Bolshevik revolution, a tower. It was conceived as a 400-metre monument, with mechanical devices for carrying people up and down, centred at a slant around (literally revolutionary) twin helixes. Tatlin’s Tower was never built: it was unbuildable. Even if the newborn USSR had contained enough steel, or not been at war with itself, or gripped by housing shortages, it was structurally almost impossible. It was a dream from the start, and it inhabits the collective unconscious of modern art like a dream we’ve all had – like a ghost that wants something from us, but can’t speak to say what.

Vladimir Tatlin with the model for his tower

Of course, well into the twenties the Russian Revolution was characterised in its art by incredible idealism and optimism, and by impeccable Modernist experiment. It was fundamentally youthful, as befits a completely new experiment (for a good ten years the ideal of this newness remained paramount). But it was a dream.

Emma Goldman saw through this, to digress: invited by Lenin to come and have a look at the wonderful thing, she returned from the USA and had a look. She told Lenin the treatment of women was appalling and that she refused to support a revolution that didn’t include contraception, and went back to America. The only person I’ve heard of who told Lenin where to get off.

Now look at Ai Weiwei’s chairs, from his show So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst:

The dream speaks: 20 Chairs From the Qing Dynasty

Click on that Haus der Kunst link, by the way, and then look at the chairs again right after looking at the map.

Or look at this:

The dream speaks: Descending Light, 2007

I can’t tell you precisely what some of these things mean, but I do know that art will start to speak to you in the dream language and connections, suggestions and illuminations will be made. To some people this is the best way of communicating. It’s how I’m receiving communications, by the way. MY knowledge of the specific minutiae is extremely limited, but the images do tell a story.

Although the authorities are claiming financial irregularity of some kind and saying it’s a purely criminal matter, on the main Chinese social media site if you even mention his name your post is deleted. They’re getting round the bots by calling him Ai Wellai, which means “love the future” – a pun that serves the same purpose as the “river crab” pun that determined the menu at Ai’s farewell party for his doomed studio (which he wasn’t allowed to go to). “Ai Wellai” is serving in good stead: as one social media user said, “I really don’t dare believe that in this society, even love for the future can disappear.”

Love the future

This is an example of poetry, by the way. Creating meaning in places in the language where it previously wasn’t. Negative space, new ambiguity, turning words inside out to extract that last drop goodness.

Now look at this. Look at its fragility, its light, and its lightness – look how it floats on the water.

Two towers speaking: one at the beginning of the dream, one at the end

There’s a Free Ai Weiwei Twitter petition – not that anyone thinks the Chinese government will do what Twitter says, but they do care enough to block it, and Ai is a great twitter fan. So sign.

And here, for actual information and insight, this piece from Slate.

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