The son of one of China’s preeminent poets and social critics, Ai Weiwei spent much of his early life in internal exile with his family. Twenty years later, the family was permitted to reenter Beijing, his father’s reputation restored to its former glory. Reversals of this kind are a standard aspect of twentieth-century Chinese social history and an undeniable foundation of Ai’s practice and thought.
Ai later spent 11 years in New York City, for the most part in ruminative absorption of the arcane and complex psychic postures of Dadaism, in particular the flexible meaning games one finds in the work of Marcel Duchamp. In this period, he developed a language and an attitude that permitted him to engage the realities of social and political violence and caprice with a measure of mastery and control. His work centers predominantly on objects and how they are made to accumulate—or to evacuate—meaning largely through the shaping action of power. His project is at once an activism and a meditation on historical meaning: it sees history as the disfigurement of time and matter by power, and his many acts of “poetic destruction,” such as the overpainting of a 2,000-year-old Chinese vase with Coca-Cola logos, are actually emancipations of objects, either by freeing them from the tyrannical grip of history or by dramatizing the acts of historical destruction that have become inseparable components of the social and economic modernization processes that determine our everyday lives.
These gestures represent profound excursions into modernist irony, historical counter-enactments or inversions of the production of social and psychic meaning. Ai’s use in particular of a strict minimalist aesthetic is a rigorous extension of his evacuative poetics: in his architecture as well as his art and public interventions, he cultivates an ideal of “stylelessness” whose ultimate ethical meaning must be understood within the Chinese political context in which history and destiny have been appropriated by the narrative machinery of the State. His work, with its dizzying ironies, double entendres, and often excessive subtlety, must be seen as so many defenses against historical corruption—a type of formalist neo-purism with a political face.
The work Untitled, presented here, makes public the findings of a year-long “Citizens’ Investigation” of the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake initiated by the Ai Weiwei Studio on behalf of the thousands of student victims of the disaster.* The survey covered 150 schools in 74 towns to amass the names of the deceased children, their birth dates, and the name of the schools they attended and in which they were killed. The investigation uncovered the subsequently widely reported fact that the defective “tofu construction” of school buildings played a principal role in the disproportionately high mortality rate of schoolchildren, a fact that was strenuously covered up by government authorities. Five thousand three hundred thirty-five backpacks are arrayed here, each in commemoration of a child documented by the “Citizens’ Investigation.” In a sound piece accompanying the work titled Remembrance, the names of the victims are recited. —SK