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Ai Weiwei, artist-guru

Contemporary Art | His passport returned, Ai Weiwei is using his newfound freedom of movement to reconnect with Western and international concerns. With a mastery of communication tools and social media, his activism is developing global influence, bringing a new dimension to the artist’s role : that of the guru.

Ai Weiwei au Bon Marché © Patrick Kovarik / AFP
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Ai Weiwei au Bon Marché
© Patrick Kovarik / AFP

Ai Weiwei is omnipresent since the lifting of his house arrest. A professor at Berlin’s Universität der Kunste, he is also actively involved in the refugee crisis, with studios in both Germany and on the island of Lesbos. His frenetic production is astonishing : an exhibition at the Royal Academy, an intervention in the Parisian department store Le Bon Marché, work at the Louis Vuitton Foundation… Ai Weiwei fully exploits the media, setting public opinion aflame with a photograph presented at the Indian Art Fair in which he replays the role of the young Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body was photographed on a beach by Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir. The polemic surrounding this superposition of images, in which Ai Weiwei plays the protagonist, demonstrates the often binary reactions his work inspires. Speculative logic for some, whistleblower for others, the Chinese artist has managed to cultivate a productive ambiguity he maintains with virtuosity.

Extremely active on Twitter (314,000 followers for 127,000 posts) and Instagram (216,000 followers for about 10,000 posts), Ai Weiwei’s online community is faithful and responsive, making most everything he posts go viral. In 2011, when Chinese authorities accuse him of tax fraud, tens of thousands of people mobilize to reimburse the 1.7 million euro owed to the public treasury. When his passport was confiscated, the protest hashtags #FlowersForFreedom and #WithFlowers invade the web. When an investigation finds him guilty of a pornographic act, internet users launch a support campaign “Ai Weiwei Fans’ Nudity – Listen, Chinese Government, Nudity is not Pornography” in which they photograph themselves nude. Recently, when the Lego Group refused to furnish him with a large quantity of bricks for a work, Ai Weiwei launches an Instagram donation campaign, sparking an international controversy that finally forces the Danish company’s capitulation.

It should be noted that the labels “dissident artist” and “activist artist” are ingrained in Ai Weiwei’s public image and are constantly employed by the press when referring to him. It is a recurring semantic excess that could lead one to forget the harsh consequences of actual political dissidence in China, where a victim such as intellectual Liu Xiaobo is currently purging an 11 years prison sentence for “subversion.”

Vincent Kozsilovics
Publié le 19/02/2016
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Ai Weiwei au Bon Marché © Patrick Kovarik / AFP Ai Weiwei à la Royal Academy © Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images Portrait of Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio by Wolfgang Stahr for Artsy © Artsy and Wolfgang Stahr Ai Weiwei, lors de l’inauguration de ’Er Xi, Air de jeux’ le 16 janvier 2016 au Bon Marché à Paris © ISA HARSIN/SIPA

Ai Weiwei au Bon Marché
© Patrick Kovarik / AFP

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