A sea of sunflower seeds covers the floor, their grey-black millions blanketing the grand hall of the Tate Modern art gallery.
Once, you could walk barefoot on the bed of seeds, the enormity of the 500 by 75 square feet Turbine Hall before you, as light filtered gently from the 524 glass panels above you. These are not your average sunflower seeds but “seeds” crafted of porcelain and hand-painted by 1,600 artists from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen.
Ai Weiwei is both the most famous living Chinese artist and a political activist who is publicly critical of the Chinese government’s policies on democracy and human rights. This piece “Sunflower Seeds” uses the appearance of a common street snack from Ai’s childhood to revisit the hunger and suffering experienced during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The simple seeds criticize the socialist economy that revolves around the “sun”—Chairman Mao—but reveals the power of millions of individual citizens gathered together for a cause—just as the mere sight of the millions of grey sunflower seeds together appears immediately striking.
“The crowd will have its way, eventually,” emphasizes Ai.
It’s a dangerous sentiment to preach, especially in the People’s Republic of China, yet Ai and his works enjoy widespread acclaim from the American and Western populace, especially after the premiere of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. He is a free thinker and a vocal spokesperson on human rights violations and social engagement through art. His native country—a country where free speech threatens the government—continues to censor Ai. Chinese police have beaten and detained him; the government has bulldozed his studio and watched him through video surveillance and social media tracking.
But though he is wildly popular internationally, he holds almost no clout in his native country. A Chinese international student at Yale, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that he had only heard about Ai Weiwei after he began attending international school. When asked what his peers thought of the artist, he laughed, “I don’t think people know about him.”
“For the people that might know him, I guess they think he’s a bit radical.”
Ai’s works are highly political and controversial, from his “Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square,” a photograph in which he flips off the historic site of both the gates of the Forbidden Palace and the forcibly covered-up Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, to “Straight,” a stylized representation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and its aftereffects that blames the Chinese government for the casualties.
Much of his work is not displayed in China, and because the government paints him as a dissident, the ordinary Chinese citizen knows much less about Ai Weiwei’s art than American, British or German citizens, who have easy access to his art. Even among fellow Chinese artists and intellectuals, some are less sympathetic toward his work, arguing that his art incites controversy for the sake of controversy. The unfavorable opinions rose especially after Ai’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” in which he destroyed a historical Chinese artifact for the purpose of challenging “Chinese authorities; ideological interpretation of the country’s history,” according to the Deutsche Welle.
In fact, many critics argue that “he went too far with this work, that this irretrievable destruction was pure provocation which only aimed to promote his persona,” says Sabine Peschel, in her article “Putting the Ai Weiwei phenomenon into perspective.” The more politicized and controversial Ai’s art becomes, the further he distances himself from his artistic peers. In an interview with The New Yorker, Feng Boyi–who worked with Ai–explained that some Chinese youth outside of art circles “really admired him”; however, some artists “attack him…they say he simply wants to make a fuss.”
Unlike audiences in Western nations who respect and wholly admire Ai’s work for its intensely political nature, the average Chinese citizen seems to have a less favorable, less secure knowledge and opinion of Ai Weiwei’s work—particularly the most political pieces.
“I feel like he’s a tokenized person by Western media or organizations … [someone who] gives a lot of criticism for the Chinese society,” says the anonymous student.
Western audiences seem to enjoy the “political rebel” image of Ai, willingly consuming black-and-white depictions of Communist, authoritarian regimes; Ai Weiwei seems perfectly content to feed into these depictions. No Chinese organizations have ever invited him to hold major exhibitions within China, so while he has had atmospheric success abroad, he is on the fringes of China’s art scene. Critics explain that Ai may be more than willing to cater to the foreign perceptions of an exaggerated totalitarian China rather than mull over the ambiguities and modern complexities of today’s China.
Antonio Cao, Morse ‘21, who is also a Chinese international student, explained that he had always been vaguely aware of Ai Weiwei as a dissident artist yet only truly learned about him this past month at the “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” exhibition at the Guggenheim, featuring prominent Chinese artists like Ai.
“I think some of [the art] is it just to catch people’s eyes, especially to cater towards Westerner’s impression of China, like China’s restriction on the media…and Westerners love this portrayal of China for some reason. In a way, Western media favors this kind of art. Ai Weiwei is just perpetuating this perception,” Cao notes, “I think he believes it to some extent, but he is also doing it for the fame.”
Yet, Ai Weiwei is also the son of Ai Qing, one of the most celebrated poets in China from the Communist Party, who stood with Mao Zedong at the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949.This patriotic and government-aligned family connection granted Ai Weiwei immunity for many years, juxtaposing his dissident reputation with a strongly Communist family background. Ai also built the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, essentially working for the regime which he attacks. Though he regrets designing the Bird’s Nest, he will always be irrevocably intertwined and affiliated with the Chinese government.
Still, many people including Cao do not know that Ai is the designer of the stadium or Ai Qing’s son.
“He’s blocked from the news. People do know his father because his poetry is in Chinese textbooks that everyone will read. But people hardly draw the connection between those two people,” explains the anonymous source, which demonstrates the lack of public support Ai holds in China.
Ai Weiwei is a supposedly high-profile dissident; in fact, the Beijing government keeps him in the news by chasing him over tax evasion, accusing him of spreading pornography, and labeling him a “Western spy” and offender, according to the Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. The mainstream Chinese news depicts Ai in this way, especially after the government shutdown of his popular political blog, formerly published on China’s Sina Weibo platform. Those who have read Ai’s blog may understand and agree with his arguments; however, his works are nowhere near as widely known in China as they are in the Western world.
Despite the government’s surveillance and punishment of Ai, his peers explain that the Chinese government does not actually fear him. In a CNN interview, Alison Klayman, the filmmaker of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, explained that Ai’s artist and filmmaker peers would say to her, “You know he’s not really that political. Nobody is afraid of him. The government isn’t afraid of him.”
“Their view is he’s an artist, a mischievous child,” Klayman says.
They’re either indifferent or angry at him. We return to the realization that though we may perceive Ai Weiwei as an outspoken art hero, that image may not be his true self. No longer is China the stereotyped closed society that silences its artists at the hint of themes deviating from governmental agendas, evident in the hugely profitable mainland auction house successes of artists like Yue Minjun and Zeng Fangzhi.
“The situation in China is very complicated,” the anonymous source states, “and very intriguing for the western community, because many people don’t actually understand. Ai Weiwei is such a person who shares a similar vision the Western society and the Western media; he’s like the joint point of the Western way of thinking and the Chinese context, so that’s why he gets his popularity.”
“I think he’s such an attention seeker.”
Cao explains that “I definitely do not like it. It portrays China as very oppressive, as a very dehumanizing place; it’s art that makes you feel uncomfortable…”
Ai may be caricaturing modern-day China for profit in the Western art world, which explains the immense divide between his Western and Chinese reception. He is the most famous living Chinese artist, yet his work is scarcely embraced in his native country.
“That’s definitely not how Chinese society is right now; that’s not the full picture of China and China’s art,” Cao says.
Allison Chen is a first-year at Yale University. Contact her at email@example.com