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Art, China and Censorship According to Ai Weiwei

December 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Ai Weiwei has spent his career creating art with a direct social and political message. His photos, sculptures and installations highlight issues like Chinese censorship and corruption. Jeffrey Brown reports on Ai's career and "According to What?" -- an exhibition of his work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: art and activism.

Jeffrey Brown has a look at the first North American exhibit of work by China’s Ai Weiwei.

JEFFREY BROWN: Antique wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty repurposed into a sculpture called “Grapes,” a video documenting changes along a major street in Beijing, an ancient vase creatively altered or debased — you decide — with a modern-day logo, now on display at the Smithsonian’s HirshhornMuseum in Washington, D.C.

In an exhibition called “According to What?” these are the works by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a prankster who can make a tea house literally out of tea leaves and represents the real surveillance camera that watches him at his home in China as a marble sculpture.

He’s also a visionary who helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and whose use of social media is shifting the boundaries of art and activism, and a dissident pressing for human rights who took a picture and tweeted it even as he was being arrested in 2009…

MAN: You’re hitting me? You brought all these cops to beat me?

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MAN: Who hit you?

JEFFREY BROWN: … and then spent 81 days in prison, was beaten and made an X-ray image of the damage he suffered into an artwork, “Brain Inflation.”

AI WEIWEI: For me living in today’s world, living in China, it’s very hard to do a work which does not reflects or suggest with other possibility and meanings.

All the works I do which connect or reflects either to the art history or to the political situation. And only in that context, my work can have some meaning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ai lives in works in Beijing and is not allowed by the government to travel outside China. He spoke recently to a camera crew hired by the NewsHour to pose our questions.

AI WEIWEI: I cannot separate myself from once as artist or as a so-called activist, only because I don’t know what I will be next.

JEFFREY BROWN: Born in 1957, Ai is the son of a renowned poet. The father and his family, including the young Weiwei, were sent to be reeducated in a rural village for two years during the cultural revolution.

Ai Weiwei came of age as part of a generation of young Chinese artists breaking out of past strictures.

And beginning in 1981, he lived in the U.S. for 12 years. His New York photographs, many of which are in the Hirshhorn exhibition, chronicle his Bohemian life with other artists and writers, both Chinese and American.

KERRY BROUGHER, Smithsonian’s HirshhornMuseum: For me, Ai Weiwei has been one of the most important artists that has emerged from this new wave of Chinese art from the ’90s and the 2000s.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kerry Brougher is chief curator at the Hirshhorn.

KERRY BROUGHER: There are multiple layers in Ai Weiwei’s work. You can read certain pieces very simply, as what they are, but you can also dig deeper. You can see the history of China reflected in much of the work.

You can see conflicts with Western culture and Eastern culture. And you can see critiques sometimes of the Chinese government or of other governments as well, power in general.

JEFFREY BROWN: Often, you can see a provocation, as in one of Ai’s most famous works, dropping a Han Dynasty run, three photographs showing exactly that, the destruction of a 2,000-year-old cultural relic.

KERRY BROUGHER: One of the things I think he is saying is, sometimes, it’s necessary to destroy the old before you can move forward with the new.

And, also, by destroying something that is important, it suddenly makes you have to think about the value of things. What are they worth? Who says they’re valuable?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ai returned to China in 1993 and became part of the country’s cultural elite, eventually tapped by the government to collaborate with a Swiss architectural firm to design the 2008 Olympic Stadium.

Photos are on the floors and walls of the exhibition. But he grew critical of the Communist Party’s attempt to control the event. His biggest confrontation with the authorities soon followed, after the earthquake in SichuanProvince, when more than 5,000 children were killed in poorly constructed schools that collapsed, leading to accusations of official corruption and a cover-up.

Ai photographed the destruction and started an online campaign to collect the names, ages and other data from each victim. That became a wall-sized display and an audio recording called “Remembrance.”

He also transformed tragedy into art, collecting some 38 tons of twisted steel rebar from the destruction, straightening it and arranging it as a large rolling sculpture titled “Straight.”

And picking up one particularly poignant image from the rubble, he created a long serpentine work constructed of children’s backpacks.

The documentary film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” captures some of his attempts to gain information on what had happened. Filmmaker Alison Klayman spent three years watching Ai Weiwei up close through his work as artist and activist.

ALISON KLAYMAN, filmmaker: He is an artist first and foremost as a sort of overriding umbrella for all of his work, but to him, what is the definition of an artist? It’s someone who is interested in communication, who is interested in engagement, who has to be talking about things that are relevant to the world around him or her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, communication and new technology, the Internet and social media, became a passion for Ai. Beginning in 2006 and lasting three years, he wrote a blog about art, life and politics, before it was shut down by the government.

He now spends hours a day online and remains very active on Twitter, though it’s blocked within China.

AI WEIWEI: The Internet is such a beautiful miracle for the society here, like China, because we are still living under a very restricted dictatorship. You know, we are still dealing with a very restricted control on freedom of expression.

And the Internet probably is the only vehicle for people to even sense there’s another person who shares the same idea or who can offer different information about what is happening. And that is the foundation for civil society.

JEFFREY BROWN: A very serious side, and still the playful side, the work of some 3,200 river crabs made of porcelain.

Why? Well, the Chinese term for river crab sounds like the word for harmonious. That, in turn, has become ironic Internet slang in China referring to official censorship.

Ai Weiwei continues to make museum-ready objects, such as “Cube Light,” a huge chandelier that refers to the traditions of both Chinese lanterns and Western minimalist art. He also continues to speak his mind.

AI WEIWEI: I often tell young people, because they always say, oh, Mr. Ai, I feel so bad because I don’t think we can change a society like this.

So, I often reply to them, I say, we are part of the society. If we can change ourselves, if we can act, so that means part of our society had changed. If more people can do so, then we can change the society.

JEFFREY BROWN: After his release from prison in 2011, Ai was charged with tax evasion and hit with a multimillion-dollar fine, which his backers see as further punishment for his activism.

In the meantime, the Chinese government continues to hold his passport, which made it impossible for Ai Weiwei to attend the opening of the exhibition of his own work in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In our interview with Ai Weiwei, he said he will never be optimistic about China’s new leadership. Hear that, plus his views on art and censorship, on our website.

We also have more from our interviews about the artist. And you can view a slide show of images from the Hirshhorn exhibit.