PEN WORLD VOICES
Weiwei-isms, Edited by Larry Warsh
Edited by Larry Warsh
125 pp, $12.95
Princeton University Press
“My favorite word? It’s ‘act’.”
Artists and their patrons have always had shaky, if symbiotic, relationships. Renaissance sponsors often ended up on canvas in caricature or in begrudging ‘homage’ as background figures. Today’s private patrons are often content to bask in the glow of a little public recognition while providing unfettered artistic license, while corporate sponsors insist on getting the message right. And when the patron is a sitting monarch or a repressive government, no public grant or court favor comes without strings: woe betide the artist who does not deliver value for money given or convey a political view other than the official position.
The crushing weight of censorship – to artists, patrons, citizens and governments alike – is at the heart of Ai Weiwei’s “Weiwei-isms”, a collection of the renowned conceptual artist’s musings, edited by Larry Warsh and published by Princeton University Press. Weiwei experienced firsthand the perils of government sponsorship with an 81-day jailing and subsequent house arrest in a swift fall from grace soon after he designed the Beijing Olympics’ centerpiece ‘Bird’s Nest’.
Weiwei, who was born in 1957 and whose father, also a poet, suffered political persecution during Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, has since been released from any formal detention, although he is unable to travel outside China, having been forced to surrender his passport. However, a collection of works, “Ai Weiwei: According To What?” is on a US exhibition schedule at this writing, currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art after a successful run at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.
Weiwei had bitten the hand that fed, and placed himself “between the pen and the gun”, a deft paraphrase of none other than Mao Zedong (the first tweeter, per Weiwei), whose ‘Little Red Book’ of 200 quotations is an eerie obverse of this new collection of the artist’s own tweets, blog entries and interview snippets. Indeed, Mao, the Chairman of various iterations of the Communist Party of China from 1945 until his death in 1976, likely wrote those words as a voice of the oppressed, not the oppressor.
Mao is present, in spirit and presentation, throughout ‘Weiwei-isms’, with many of his sayings turned back onto themselves, and others oddly prescient about the current state of China and its artists. The book itself is a charming physical conceit, black-bound in contrast to the Chairman’s red motif, and roughly the dimensions of a City Lights Pocket Poets series work.
Like Confucius before him, Mao’s pronouncements might convey to the Western ear a simplistic, almost trite, aphoristic worldview – that is, if one were never suppressed into personal oblivion or starved to death by the policies they informed. Likewise, Weiwei’s words can sometimes feel tossed off, until one considers the incredible risk taken with every blog entry, tweet or interview that comprise ‘Weiwei-isms’.
“At midnight they can come into your room and take you away. They can put a black hood on you, take you to a secret place and interrogate you, trying to stop what you’re doing. They threaten people, your family, by saying: ‘You’re children won’t find jobs’.”
In today’s China, artists, journalists, individuals and even politicians are engaged in a struggle with the state, and with themselves. The government’s new hybrid economic policies seek to put distance between old ideology and new reality, but always hew back to the preservation of the Party. Free-speech advocates actually invoke Mao’s absolutist nationalism. The disconnect is palpable, and tragic in light of traditional Confucian values.
“In talking about memory and our history, I think our humanity, especially in China, is cut. Cut, broken, separated. If we have a character from our history and memory, the character is broken, it’s shattered.”
For such a small work, ‘Weiwei-isms’ covers a great deal of ground in six sections (Freedom of Expression; Art and Activism; Government Power and Making Moral Choices; The Digital World; History, the Historical Moment and the Future; Personal Reflections). Regardless of topic, each section conveys the sense of a culture at odds with itself, and the pervasive threat of imminent censorship of those who would dare aspire to any form of personal expression, especially artistic. In the process, artist becomes patriot and patron becomes tyrant.
Read this book in a darkened room, and then read it again in a sunlit field.
“Once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country.”
Dennis O’Donnell is a direct-import marketing specialist in giftware and housewares, and is a frequent business traveler to Central America, Europe and Asia. His interest in indigenous handcrafts has taken him to Guatemala, Honduras, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere to promote artisan entrepreneurship issues. He is a native of Philadelphia PA and still lives and writes there.