'Whatever’s happened is already not interesting at all': Ai Weiwei's Blog

Shumi Bose

Contexts / 05.10.2011
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Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou with two police officers in Chengdu's Anyi Hotel elevator at 5 a.m., 12 August 2009. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.240. Courtesy the MIT Press

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Ai Weiwei in front of Self-Portrait (1966), on display at Andy Warhol's first MoMA, New York exhibition, a year after Warhol's death, 1988. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.131. Courtesy the MIT Press

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Student drawings hanging on the wall of Juyuan Middle School, one of the 'tofu-dregs' schools that collapsed in the Wenchuan earthquake on 29 May 2008. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.153. Courtesy the MIT Press 

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Ai Weiwei filming in the quake rubble of the devastated city of Yingxiu, Sichuan province, 30 May 2008. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.150. Courtesy the MIT Press

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Ai examines Grapes (2005) with a camera in his studio, December 26 2007. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.24. Courtesy The MIT Press 

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'Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs, 1983-1993' exhibition opening at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing, 2 January 2009. From Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009, p.191. Courtesy the MIT Press 

On May 28 2009, in a prophetic post entitled ‘I’m Ready’, Ai Weiwei published the following statement on his blog:

I’m ready. Or rather, there’s nothing to get ready for. One person. That is everything that I have, it is all that someone might possible gain and everything that I can devote. I will not hesitate in the time of need, and I won’t be vague. [...] Reject cynicism, reject cooperation, reject fear and reject tea drinking, there is nothing to discuss. It’s the same old saying: don’t come looking for me again. I won’t cooperate. If you must come, bring your instruments of torture with you.1

A few days later, his blog was shut down. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the notorious artist, activist, designer and architect Ai Weiwei should be a target for suppression by an autocratic government whose ankles he has continued to bite. Though unaccustomed even to typing when he began blogging in 2006, Ai soon found the blog platform to be an easy means to reach huge audiences, sharing thousands of images, often snapped with his mobile phone, together with tales of his frequent encounters with the failure of free society in China. Posts with such bared teeth as the one quoted above were, at the blog’s peak, read by up to 17 million people, confronting the fictions of government propaganda and articulating dissent – poetically and artistically – to a gigantic audience. Even as he was being fêted as artistic consultant to starchitects Herzog + De Meuron for the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, site of the one of most widely disseminated spectacles in recent televisual history, Ai pointed out the cavities in China’s ‘pretend smile’, advocating a boycott of the 2008 Olympics. In 2009, sina.com.cn – the monopolising, state-monitored infotainment portal in China – shut down Ai’s original blog; cached remains are impossible to find online. However thanks to surviving fragments and archived posts, the blog has been curated and consolidated into a neat grey book, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants 2006–2009 (2011). To date, this volume remains the most complete archive of the artist’s blog posts. 

The defiance Ai kindled in millions of his readers across the world turned to a chilled and furry edge of consternation upon hearing, in early April of this year, that the artist had been arrested at Beijing airport and detained without charge; he was held at an undisclosed location under tenuous claims of ‘economic crimes’ for more than two months. His words echoed prophetically as reports emerged that the artist was ‘beginning to confess to crimes’ after several weeks of detainment, a fact noted by writer and fellow firebrand in a New York Times Op-Ed by Salman Rushdie, famously the ‘recipient’ of a fatwa issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini. A previous encounter with the Chinese police in 2009 (shortly preceding the shutdown of his blog) saw Ai brutally beaten and ultimately needing treatment for a cerebral haemorrhage.

From Rushdie in The New York Times to Anish Kapoor’s dedication of artworks to the artist, Ai’s unlawful detainment provoked international outcry – at least initially. Curator and friend of the artist Roger M. Buergel was responsible for inviting Ai to participate in the 2007 Documenta, enabling the Fairytale project, where 1001 ordinary Chinese citizens came to the exhibition itself for an unprecedented first-hand experience of contemporary art. In an interview with Der Spiegel one month after Ai’s arrests, Buergel admonished the Western media and in particular the reactions of the art world, claiming that many outside of China would be glad to see the artist silenced – not due to political threat, but rather out of jealousy: Ai has captured the resistive ground between artist and activist; according to Buergel, he is the only artist currently practising to have succeeded in ‘bridging the gap between art and politics’.

Such a mix of art and politics is well demonstrated in Ai Weiwei’s Blog. Finding a limitless outlet for writing and photography, the artist flexes his prose muscles to great effect, though the translations of Chinese truisms, perhaps poetic in their native tongue, occasionally read as slightly ornate and sanctimonious. Likewise, individual articles are often lyrical and poignant, but read contiguously can be a little cloying; like good poetry, whether in translation or not, the acuity of a single line often carries more weight than a complete volume. Coming from the curator of the audacious 2000 Shanghai exhibition ‘Fuck Off’, the language can turn sharply from lyrical to crude and colloquial, as is increasingly the case as time passes and the writing loses patience, but the most persuasively written texts are the most political in tone.

Often compared to Andy Warhol, both for his open-door factory-studio and his media nous, his commitment to civil liberty and justice is exemplified by his rapid adoption of social networking conventions

Ai’s father and his family, including the infant Weiwei, had been detained in labour camps in western China during the late 1950s and 60s, and the Ai defiance seems to have been passed from father to son: relentless belligerence against the machinations of the government of the People’s Republic and pained criticism of the docility of its subjects colour almost every daily dispatch. Compared to the sparse and often mawkish coverage of everyday life in China in the uncensored Western media, each post provides a profound and more nuanced understanding of the country’s quotidian infarction of civil liberties. In particular Ai’s horror at the deaths of hundreds of children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, due in part to the government’s shoddy ‘tofu-dregs engineering’ in constructing their schools, pushed him to write several blistering tirades on the subject as well as a growing list of the collected names of the dead.2

The latter essays – following the earthquake posts and prefiguring the aforementioned beating from the Chinese police – are ever more injured in tone, their shorter, barking titles more direct in their accusations: ‘Bullshit Is Free’, ‘How Could We Have Degenerated to This?’ and most blatantly, ‘If You Aren’t Anti-Chinese, Are You Still Human?’ The last five texts, dated after the shutdown of the blog, are collated from Ai’s Twitter account – he readily adopted the microblogging platform as a way to reach an even greater public – and from alternative platforms; the final blog post is titled incredulously, ‘I Really Can’t Believe It’.

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In the book, blog posts appear divided into years, from 2006 to 2009; no other stratification or arrangement defines the reading experience – just a serial flow of titled and dated texts, punctuated sporadically with concurrent black and white photographs of the artist’s studio experiments and works in progress. Early posts luxuriate in reflections on contemporary art, politics, philosophy and culture; a 2006 post, ‘Chinese Contemporary Art in Dilemma and Transition'4 is a thoughtful argument running to several thousand words on the notion of a national voice, on Chinese history and culture, and of modern cultural consumption. Often compared to Andy Warhol for his media nous as well as his open-door factory-studio in Caochangdi, just outside of Beijing, his commitment to civil liberty and social justice is exemplified by his rapid adoption of blogging and social networking conventions.

However, this book, which does not contain reader comments or hyperlinks that Ai had added, acts less like a blog and more like a printed archive or anthology. Books don’t allow the same mobility in reading as blogs; Umberto Eco’s notion of hypertext, heralding interactive CD-ROMs as ‘The Future of the Book’, has morphed beyond recognition since the 1990s; we have climbed the thousandth plateau in a flickering digital landscape. Travelling from web link to web link at synaptic speed and perhaps more importantly, participating in web 2.0 functionality – that is, user-submitted interaction or feedback and the ability for potentially massive plural exchange (think simply of clicking a ‘Like’ button on a Facebook page – along with thousands of others) – have become accepted phenomena. Over a million reader comments were deleted when Ai’s blog was closed. The blogosphere has popularly become the site of civic consciousness; the everyman soapbox with a wider reach than any megaphone can offer, and where a lone reader can easily commune with fellow sympathisers. None of this is effected in the private and intimate encounter one has when absorbing information or narrative from a book, held in the hands.

Why have the publishers omitted any screenshots of the blog itself? Many readers encountering Ai’s blog through this book will not have visited it while it was ‘live’ and visible online, making it hard to relate its original aesthetic and operation to this monochromatic format. The decision to discard the amenities of the blog format, such as images and links, is seemingly conscious and thorough; why else are references provided as endnotes, less likely to be consulted, rather than handy footnotes at the bottom of the page that might replicate their clickability on the blog? It isn’t clear why further reading or embedded links are not extrapolated after each entry – even ‘dead’ links would have gone some way to emphasising, rather than denying, the temporal original format of Ai’s writing. The format and labour of producing and consuming blogs is not sufficiently understood in its own sphere, and certainly the transposition from RGB HTML to black and white print has not yet been thoroughly tested. Even cyberpunk innovator William Gibson felt that his blog was shapeless; nostalgic for the ‘sweet and crazy-making difficulties’ of structuring his fiction, he shut down his own weblog in 2003.

A similar publication – a(nother) translation and transposition of Ai’s blog, still translated by Lee Ambrozy – has recently been published by the German Galiani Press with a more combative title: Have No Illusions about Me: The Forbidden Blog. Perhaps this version, following the internet-driven protests against the artist’s arrest and detainment, will have a more brazen approach to displaying the blog interfaces and content than the unassuming volume from MIT, released with grim coincidence just before Ai was seized.

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But in whatever changed form, the publication and preservation of Ai’s blog was an important event this year, chequered equally by strangled oppression as well as jasmine-scented revolution. Informative in degrees, and impassioned, certainly; however, the achievement of the blog book is not in the minutiae of its exhaustive content but in the anachronistic gesture itself. The book functions as a testimony, a material monument to the existence of something that was. For once, ‘ephemeral’ seemed to mean just that; in the current climate, the life of a (dissident) artist and its daily observations – sometimes eloquent, sometimes coarse, always critical and ‘never sorry’ – has been revealed as truly fragile. 

Footnotes
  1. 'I'm Ready', page 230, Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (ed. and trans. Lee Ambrozy), London: The MIT Press, 2011.

  2. The phrase 'tofu-dregs' appears in relation to the slipshod and substandard construction work evident after the tragic collapse of school buildings in China, killing thousands of children. The first occurrence of this phrase in the book appears in a post called, 'Does the Nation have a List?' in ibid., p.176, referring to the artist's own heartrending list of the victims' names. 

  3. Ibid., pp.186, 225 and 231.

  4. ‘Chinese Contemporary Art in Dilemma and Transition’, ibid, p.14.