Art V. Activism- Is Ai WeiWei Still an Artist?


Ai Weiwei

The Guardian’s chief art writer Jonathan Jones asked an interesting and prickly question recently- given Ai WeiWei’s growing reputation as a political figure, is he still an ‘artist’? In his highly thought provoking piece, Jones begged the question of the Chinese contemporary figure, ‘has his art vanished into the storm of polemic?’.

I should declare my biases now and admit that Ai Weiwei is one of my favourite living artists. However, Jones’ piece is an interesting read, regardless of your feelings on Ai WeiWei, for the questions it highlights not only about the Chinese artist, but also of the nature of ‘artistry’ in general.

Can we have an artist-activist? Or an artistic-activist? An activist-artist? Does it even matter in which way the balance lies?

A typically provocative Ai Weiwei piece. Photograph of his wife lifting her skirt to the camera in front of a traditional Chinese backdrop

A typically provocative Ai Weiwei piece. Photograph of his wife lifting her skirt to the camera in front of a traditional Chinese backdrop

Ai Weiwei salutes Tiananmen Square

Ai Weiwei salutes Tiananmen Square

Ai Weiwei first came to international notice (and acclaim) when he was brought on board as artistic consultant for the national stadium as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He went on to withdraw from the opening ceremony saying, ‘China [has] excluded its people from the Olympics’. He was later declared a threat to the police state. In 2011 he was arrested at Beijing airport on, shall we say, dubious allegations of tax evasion and held by the Chinese government without charge for two months. Later that year, Art Review placed him at the top of their annual Power 100 list.

I would argue that Ai Weiwei’s activism changes his art in that it is inclined to aim for viral-ity over longeivity. It is built with the technological generation in mind- for Facebook shares and retweets- the power to shock fuels all of these. But, the effects he is seeking politically, are intended to be long lasting. Just because they pivot on shock factor does not mean the art works are disposable or any lesser for it, or that the effects of these shocks won’t be long lasting.


A selection of Ai Weiwei’s coloured urns. Genuine and invaluable Chinese dynasty urns dripped and dipped in pop art colours.

At the weekend, a major art dealer and curator very kindly agreed to give me a tour of their private collection in their London home. Within this collection, as chance would have it, were a number of Ai Weiwei pieces. Central to the living room were a cloister of his Chinese urns, probably my favourite work of his, which this art dealer had placed casually with all the air of the way I might plonk a mug of tea on my living room coffee table. Looking at the urns, which I had seen in many catalogues and in the media, not to mention in my two viewings of the Ai Weiwei documentary, was a immensely thrilling experience.

As I sat there looking at the urns, surrounded by so many other great pieces within the room jostling for attention, it was still the Ai Weiwei piece which held my gaze. As I admired it, I found myself doing so for the sheer beauty of the piece itself- thinking ‘God, this is beautiful’, not ‘God, I love how the politics of democracy in modern day China are being subverted’.

This experience of seeing the works out of context- in a living room not a gallery- affirmed for me just how great an artist Ai Weiwei is. An activist too, of course. But this in no way lessens his artistic talent, for me.

Siobhan Fenton, Editor of Fawn Review.

What are your thoughts on Ai Weiwei and the mix between art and activism? We’d love to hear what you think. Comment below or click here to join the conversation on the Fawn Review facebook page.