Monday, January 20, 2014

Weiwei's Conceptualism by Barnaby Martin

The concept of a human being, of a person, of mind and body, of belief and memory and imagination, of feelings and emotions and good and evil, are not normally considered to be theoretical concepts. They are not concepts we can abandon after the manner of the luminous ether, or phlogiston. They are used all the time, in our lives, atheoritically. The availability of these concepts gives shape to our subjective experience. Through using them, we are able to form articulate expression. The concepts we choose to regard as atheoretical makes us what we are.

Weiwei takes the atheoritical objects of our physical reality –the equivalent of these most basic philosophical concepts –and he does things to disturb us at a profound level. He says that although we think these objects are atheoritical, they are not. The reality we have treated for ourselves is contingent –it does not have to be this way. I is arbitrary. There is no inevitability to human society and culture. It is, at one level, absurd. The ordinary things that we fill our lives with –the shoes, the chairs, the tables –are the incarnations of a particular way of thinking and seeing, a way of thinking that just happens, for the time being, to be ascendant.  Marcel Duchamp caused people to ask ‘What Iis Art?’ Ali Weiwei causes people to ask ‘What is reality?’ And just as with his blogs, where for eight hours a day he would add his words to the endless stream of the internet, so too with his art he heaves his strange new creations into the ever broadening river of reality, hoping that by doing so he will  alter its course and change its volume and depth.

After his only New York show in 1988, his work dried up. He moved many times and every time he moved he dumped what little work he produced. But he didn’t stop thinking of himself as an artist. The abiding lesson he took from Duchamp was that being an artist was above living as an artist, rather than producing some product, some work of art for a gallery, or even for himself.


  1. Weiwei’s father Ai Qing, one of China’s most popular poets during the revolutionary era and friends with Mao, became a pariah and was exiled to the countryside where he was forced to clean toilets. He came home – a hole-in the ground-exhausted every night, covered in shit; he lost the sight of one eye and on several occasions he tried to commit suicide. Asked how his father survived that period, Weiwei said: ‘Every day my father put all his life into his job as a toilet cleaner, applying all his strength and intelligence to the demeaning task, meticulously laying the sand and cleaning the holes, and by the end everything would be immaculate, all the sand in place, Weiwei still says that this was the greatest gift his father gave him: the example that if one is always clear and precise in thought, always sincere, then even the most humble task, even a task you have been given to grind you down and humiliate you entirely, can be dignified and redeemed in the end.

  2. "Often my creative life has seemed like a long tunnel, dark and damp. And sometimes I wondered whether I could live through it. But I did!" - -- Ai Qing