We celebrate the open gigantic recreations by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei of the so-called Zodiac sculptures, the Zodiac Heads, a circle of animals that once adorned the fountain clock of the old summer palace just outside Beijing.
The 12 original sculptures, created under the supervision of Italian Jesuits in the mid 18th century, were pillaged when the old summer palace was ransacked by French and British troops in 1860. In recent years there have been many attempts — both official and not so official — to buy them back. At least to buy those back which so far have been located. In February 2009 two of the original sculptures received great attention upon the auction sale of the art collection of Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. The highest bidder though was a modest man running a small auction house in the Xiamen region. Did he act on his own or under the auspices of the Chinese government? However it might be — Chinese auction houses are houses full of contradictions — the deal never happened.
It later it became clear that his bid was to be considered an act of protest. Some suggested it was under the auspices of the Chinese government. When Ai Weiwei heard about this story in the summer of 2009, he said to me and other friends: that could make up for an "interesting" piece. I believe he also used the word "funny".
Why would Ai Weiwei consider it so "interesting" or " funny" to make such a piece. This animal circle, or animal house, is full of contradictions: it is neither a parody, it is not ironic, not in the least cynical nor is it an iconoclastic gesture. It is all at once, it is a house of contradictions, just like China. We know that China is not only a contradictory place in terms of its internal and external politics, but also in terms of its social and economic order and not in the least with regards to its own cultural heritage. Chinese can go crazy about their own past and all Chinese things and objects of the past. Yet and at the same time the Chinese seem not to bother to ruin and destroy their own cultural artefacts, both ancient and not so ancient, both important and not so important, on a continual basis. What is the trade off between such highly contradictory attitudes?
There isn't one. Chinese thinking is full of trust: no tragedy, no metaphysics. One reaches out to the future — without worrying too much about an…ideal. The term ideal does not even exist in Chinese. Quite to the contrary, there seems to be always an imbalance. The forms of the recreations we get to see in Zodiac Heads are the very expression of such an imbalance. Aren't these sculptures kind of... "bland"? In his book In Praise Of Blandness, the French professor of Chinese philosophy, Francois Jullien, argues that the "plainness treasured in Chinese aesthetics is in fact superior to any particular flavour, as it is open to all potential variations.
The art of Ai Weiwei demonstrates how an artistic practice can explore all those potential variations and can explore even diverse cultures, in order to do what: to purge its atavisms! In this sense Ai Weiwei is more Chinese than mostly Chinese artists, both old and contemporary. And he is walking on different, meandering —sometimes even opposing — paths at once. His multiple "walks of life" and his confrontational words and actions may seem erratic and disturbing at first, but in fact they are deeply rooted in the Chinese philosophical traditions. There were many Ai Weiweis before in Chinese history. Besides, he is constantly nurturing an artificial "in between-ness": in between disciplines, in between the old and the new, in between the original and the reproduction, in between China and the West.
Also, in this sense, he invokes old Chinese scholarly traditions. Is this why some Chinese police rather call him "professor" than "artist". I wonder how Ai Weiwei gets named these days by the Chinese … police. "Polis" is also the Greek word for "to protect" not just to "control". And there is the Latin saying "protego ergo sum": I do protect so I am able to govern.
When a state cannot protect its own citizens, it is incapable of governing. Such a state might have rules, but no laws. It is a lawless state. Thus is the state of things in China as it concerns the state of citizens such as Ai Weiwei. The rules of China forbid telling about his … state.
Ai Weiwei once said: "Art is about life. Our life is entirely political. Therefore all my art is political." And that is exactly why artists can and should say and do different things than politicians. To demand the release of Ai Weiwei is a matter of life and truth, which is the matter of art.
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