I had heard of Ai Weiwei and had seen his art in photos, but my first direct experience with his work was here in Málaga where we currently have his Zodiac Heads on exhibition. I mentioned to a friend that I would be going to London this past weekend, and he recommended the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art.
It is immediately evident why Ai Weiwei is such a tremendously popular contemporary artist, especially in the West. His political message is irresistible to us. He is disgusted by and reacts to the superficiality, materialism, prudishness, and conformity of the newly-rich communists in China who only aspire to driving their Mercedes-Benz and wearing their couture. He has suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Beijing police as a result of his brave efforts to document and make public the corruption and outrages against human rights always present in China. But it’s not just the politics. The enormous scale of his works is appealing, as is the big personality that infuses them. His playful sense of humor is palpable. He flipped-off the White House. What more can you ask for?
I think it’s too bad that many people shy away from contemporary art. They say they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. I went to a contemporary art exhibition with my adolescent son in Málaga a couple months ago. It was great because he is at the perfect stage in which he was slightly uncomfortable because he feels that these works are supposed to be telling him something and he doesn’t know what, and yet open and curious enough to ask questions and independent enough to look for his own answers before finding them on the smart phone. This is the ideal attitude to bring to a contemporary art exhibition. Discomfort mingled with curiosity will take you a long way.
Ai Weiwei’s art is very accessible anyway. Not to say it isn’t forceful in its impact, or that it lacks complexity. I had spent the previous day at Stoicon, the Stoic Week Event, surrounded by logic. I love Stoicism and I am grateful for the philosophers, past and present, who have helped me in my quest to live a larger, more meaningful life. But where I feel at home is in an art museum, a concert, or in the street dancing. I value how Stoicism helps me to center myself in my principles and focus on what really matters to me and brings meaning to my life: my relationship with myself, with the people I care about, and with art. Art is where I find the contradictions and tensions, power and beauty, that make life interesting and whole. Logic is great as long as it is accompanied by lots of creative passion, frequent laughter, and connection to my body. Art is a reminder that sometimes things aren’t orderly or logical, but they are right and true and just as they should be. (Or not.)
There was one large room of the exhibit in which I could not laugh. In the end I couldn’t even stay in there to see “Straight,” Weiwei’s response to the Sichuan earthquake in which more than five thousands children were killed when their shoddily-built schools collapsed. There are photos, films with footage from the aftermath, two enormous walls covered with the names of the victims, and 150 tons of steel-reinforced bars used in the construction of the schools that Weiwei purchased and had painstakingly straightened.
I saw about 30 seconds of the footage and a few photos. I turned around and saw the names covering those enormous walls, and I lost it. I started crying. I didn’t notice anyone else crying. I tried to pull myself together because I wanted to listen to the audio and look more, but I couldn’t do it. I had to move on to the next room. I returned to the room later and tried again, but no go. In fact, remembering it now as I write makes me cry. I tried to use my Stoic practices to get myself through it but it didn’t work. I couldn’t be there.
Ai Weiwei was very influenced in his New York City years by Marchel Duchamp and Dadaism, who sought to make art about challenging our assumptions. The Dadaists wanted art to be less visually pleasing and more intellectually stimulating. This kind of art appeals to me now. I’m going through this personal evolution right now in which it appears I no longer value “pretty.” I bought a joint ticket to the other big exhibition on at the RAA, Jean-Etienne Liotard, a wonderful and unusual portraitist I’ve always admired.
Seeing Liotard after Weiwei was a mistake because I felt under-whelmed. I was a bit bored by Liotard’s portraits and he deserves better.
Prettiness bores me. Lately I’m far more drawn to realness and wildness. I find more beauty there, and in individuality. Stylistically I’m feeling inspired by Patti Smith and Iris Apfel.
I know, nothing alike, but neither are pretty and both are much better than pretty.
I am single and while I am interested in having a relationship, I feel completely and utterly bored by men who are attracted to me mostly because they think I’m pretty. I know I should feel flattered and grateful by this attention, but… I’m not. And I suppose that makes me bitchy or what was it one guy called me not long ago? Arrogant. I am sorry I appear that way, but I simply can not get jazzed about guys who are only interested in prettiness. I can just hear my kick-ass grandmother responding to this attitude of mine with something like: “Well, Lindsay, you won’t be pretty for much longer, so there’s a blessing!” Yessah.
And I love his bicycle chandelier!