Happy New Year!
I saw the Ai Weiwei documentary, Never Sorry, again last night, and led a bit of a discussion about it afterwards. If you haven't seen it, you should. Alison Klayman does a great job presenting Ai's political engagement, and the way his art has been transformed into dissidence (or is art always and everywhere dissidence?). At one point he is asked how he understands himself as an artist, and he replies that he sees his role as something like a chess player, waiting for the adversary to make its next move so he can ponder his next action. Art as strategy; or maybe strategy as art.
In preparing for our post-screening discussion, I found this NYT Q&A with Ai written by Didi Kirsten Tatlow. And this exchange jumped out at me:
I think that today the concept of marginalization is a very interesting one for an artist. As a contemporary artist, we’re always looking for reasons to exist in marginalization, for the possibilities in marginalization. The minute we talk about possibilities, in reality we’re talking about the question of marginalization.....
The Party leadership is trying to marginalize him, keeping him from physically traveling and thus cutting him off from one aspect of his inter-cultural creativity. This tactic is failing, however, because, as Ai goes on to state in the interview, the internet provides him with extensive connectivity. You can follow him on Twitter, where he daily protests the extra-judicial repression of his international travel, and remembers the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He is one of the most globally connected people in the world, as the documentary illustrates.
But he is right to make the point about artists seeking out marginalization. That is what art is all about: discovering an expression that shifts the viewer's perspective, shifting the frame, de-centering an image or idea that had become settled. It is about bringing the center to the margins and the margins to the center. This is what Xu Bing accomplished with Phoenix, taking construction refuse and forging it into a representation of imperial glory; grandeur from garbage.
And this is what much of Ai's work strives for. In Sunflower Seeds, he takes what appears to be a wholly insignificant object, sunflower seeds, and uses that to call our attention to larger social and cultural ideas. The gallery web site states:
Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.
What seems to be natural is actually carefully produced; the vast uniformity is really a riot of individual presences; the mundane is profound. And so on. All brought forth by placing the marginal at the center.
Here is where Zhuangzi comes to mind, especially chapter 5. In this section, the writer presents us, repeatedly, with the image of marginalized people - criminals who have had a foot chopped off and people with other physical deformities - individuals who would not conventionally be viewed as exemplary in social or moral terms. But Zhuangzi uses these marginalized figures as avatars of a new understanding. They become sources of wisdom and knowledge and virtue. Here's and example (Legge's translation):
Duke Ai of Lu asked Zhongni, saying, 'There was an ugly man in Wei, called Ai-tai Tuo. His father-in-law, who lived with him, thought so much of him that he could not be away from him. His wife, when she saw him (ugly as he was), represented to her parents, saying, "I had more than ten times rather be his concubine than the wife of any other man." He was never heard to take the lead in discussion, but always seemed to be of the same opinion with others. He had not the position of a ruler, so as to be able to save men from death. He had no revenues, so as to be able to satisfy men's craving for food. He was ugly enough, moreover, to scare the whole world. He agreed with men instead of trying to lead them to adopt his views; his knowledge did not go beyond his immediate neighbourhood. And yet his father-in-law and his wife were of one mind about him in his presence (as I have said) - he must have been different from other men. I called him, and saw him. Certainly he was ugly enough to scare the whole world. He had not lived with me, however, for many months, when I was drawn to the man; and before he had been with me a full year, I had confidence in him. The state being without a chief minister, I (was minded) to commit the government to him. He responded to my proposal sorrowfully, and looked undecided as if he would fain have declined it. I was ashamed of myself (as inferior to him), but finally gave the government into his hands. In a little time, however, he left me and went away. I was sorry and felt that I had sustained a loss, and as if there were no other to share the pleasures of the kingdom with me. What sort of man was he?'
魯哀公問於仲尼曰：「衛有惡人焉，曰哀駘它。丈夫與之處者，思而不能去也。婦人見之，請於父母曰『與為人妻，寧為夫子妾』者，十數而未止也。未嘗有聞其唱 者也，常和而已矣。無君人之位以濟乎人之死，無聚祿以望人之腹。又以惡駭天下，和而不唱，知不出乎四域，且而雌雄合乎前。是必有異乎人者也。寡人召而觀 之，果以惡駭天下。與寡人處，不至以月數，而寡人有意乎其為人也；不至乎期年，而寡人信之。國無宰，寡人傳國焉。悶然而後應，氾而若辭。寡人醜乎，卒授之 國。無幾何也，去寡人而行，寡人卹焉若有亡也，若無與樂是國也。是何人者也？」
The Duke is so taken with this hideous man that he tries to make him chief minister. The marginal had come to the center and transformed understanding - pretty much what contemporary art, Ai Weiwei's included, strives to do.
This is a key element to Daoist thinking in general, and Zhuangzi is particularly good at turning our attention toward the unconventional, the downtrodden, the rejected. Think of this excerpt of passage 8 of the Daodejing (Hinton translation):
Lofty nobility is like water. Water's nobility is to enrich the ten thousand things and yet never strive: it just settles through places people everywhere loathe. Therefore, it's nearly Way.
When you are down in the abyss, the "...places people everywhere loathe....," you're close to Way.
So, yes, there is a Daoist aspect to Ai's work. But it has to be mentioned: he is not as marginal as he might want to be. Beyond his international fame, he is the child of a famous poet, Ai Ching. And his father's political status in the post-Mao period, as a good socialist who had been persecuted unjustly during the Cultural Revolution and thus respected by some powerful leaders after 1979, no doubt gave Weiwei some protection when he went all transgressive in his art. His family's experience has been a complex dynamic of privilege and persecution, neither unambiguously marginal nor comfortably central. One wonders if people more ensconced at the margins would ever have the chances he has had.
Ai is fully aware of his social-political status, and he uses what privilege he might have to press against the repressive limitations of state power. His work strives to open the way for others at the margins to express themselves and live their lives freely. And, in a way, that's what Zhuangzi is doing in his writing....