“I have an ego.”
-Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in an October 2015 interview with ArtSlant on the occasion of the inauguration of his guest professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts
They have a nickname for Ai Weiwei in China—“Ai Shen”—which suggests that he’s a god. And, while I know little about Chinese religious customs and have only begun to understand the enigma of Ai Weiwei, I can say at least that I’m not surprised. I would only add that I disagree. Not a god, Ai Weiwei, but an eccentric bodhisattva, a morose prankster, a rewinder of wisdom, a naked-chested stair-sprinter who talks to birds and who toys with taboo.
I went to see the artist speak at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) with a free ticket I could have sold online for an untold price. I heard later there was a buzz of last-minute phone calls seeking scalpers. People want to see him in the flesh. Just to come in contact, not necessarily to learn anything. He doesn’t say much, he takes his time to respond. Maybe it’s a problem with language, the English language, which comes out of him in disconnected half-whispers; or maybe it’s a problem with language in general, the calcification of emotion into an archiveable fact, a process he participates in only to gratify the world of names, dates, and other things you can photocopy without losing value.
Ai Weiwei regularly tweets, more than anyone else I follow on Twitter, about himself and his work. But it’s all retweets. He forms no words of his own but simply reorients and reshapes what has already been thrown onto the pottery wheel. I imagine I know how he feels: The words of others are the property of reality, the same as an earthquake, the same as gravity, the same as a bird’s instinctive vocalizations. It’s only one’s own words that come from behind the curtain and threaten to corrupt the careful accident of the displayed world. One’s own words must be spoken carefully or not at all.
Maybe this preference to show rather than tell is why his followers listen so carefully. At the end of the moderated discussion at UdK, when a young woman asked him to define art and he paused, whatever he said next was bound to be echoed somewhere, engraved somewhere, taken as a noble truth. Sure enough, in the British Evening Standard, next to a photo of the artist’s unreadable Jaconde smile is the quote of the day: “Art is like sex. You can have quite a lot of experience and still not know how to define it.” So vague, so formally clever, so worn, but nevertheless still true. Something only he could breathe meaning into.
If you say he’s a religious figure, it’s not a metaphor, but it could be. He creates metaphorical miracles. Miracles of creation: One hundred million sunflower seeds cast from porcelain and hand painted, concealing the grotesque amount of labor that went into the waste, and simultaneously impregnating every seed with its imminent revelation: Who made all these seeds, anyway?
And he has performed miracles of destruction: A two-thousand year-old urn shattered for a triptych photograph, like a man playing charades on the word “iconoclast”.
At the UdK talk, he told one of his interviewers that he doesn’t like these kinds of events. Not because he’s wary of the attention, certainly. Throughout the night, the guest of honor was tweeting and posting photos of the stage on Instagram—the present audience was not large enough for him. An unapologetic egoist, an avid promoter of his own work, who wears Ai Weiwei t-shirts to photo-ops, he said he was uncomfortable because he doesn’t usually sit still for so long. For this prophet, half an hour under the Bodhi tree would be quite enough.
When asked if he agreed with the precept that less is more, he meditated on the thought, but shook his head. “That’s very philosophical,” he said. “But I think that less is less and more is more.” He paused. “And I like to pretend to like less, but I like more.”
Maybe it’s too simplistic to see in Ai Weiwei the awakening of a conscience of personal freedom in China, the antidote to a westernization that has so far liberated only capital and not people. The accusation by some in China that the artist is “excessively privileged and self-promoting” depends entirely on one’s interpretation of “excessive.” If this Buddha is showing his people a path, it is a path to more not less, to abundance, not asceticism. And it’s a path gilded with the shine of ego and the glare of new media.
But to call him the anti-Buddha would be too simple, too solemn, and he would probably reject the theory anyway. There’s a great clip of Ai Weiwei from a spot on Britain’s Channel 4 News that shows his ability to slip out of the grip of any label. The esteemed British journalist and newscaster Jon Snow, with solemn veneration in his hefty voice praises the artist’s work as they walk through his current exhibition at the London National Gallery. They discuss Ai Weiwei’s nearly three-month long imprisonment in China and why the government considers his art a threat. “You’re a brave man,” declares Snow in a practiced cantor, leaning in for a response.
“Well, I am not so brave,” laughs the artist. “I’m just…trying to be funny or something.”