The Red and the Grey: On Ai Weiwei's Social (Media) Sculptures
(Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK)
Paper short abstract:
This paper examines the instrumental role of social media in the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and focuses on the geo-political anxieties shorn up by such artistic practice in an age of populism.
Paper long abstract:
The notion of 'social sculpture', championed by the artist-activist Joseph Beuys in the 1970s, predicates the idea that 'every human being is an artist,' capable of re-shaping the 'social organism' itself into a work of art. In today's globalised, digitally connected world, the phylogenic spread and populism of social media networks have no doubt facilitated this ideal, radically expanding the perimeters of cultural production and artistic agency. The artist Ai Weiwei has become an icon of the social media revolution, particularly after the international media spectacle surrounding his detainment by the Chinese state last year. This paper explores the ambivalent shades of Ai's mass-mobilisations, focusing on how he has channeled the so-called 'grey economy of information' circulated on Chinese social media networks towards a politically charged, participatory aesthetic. Ai's online activism will be read in tension with the artist's highly publicized and corporate-sponsored Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern in 2010-11, as well as the international art world's response to his arrest in the same period. I question whether the furore over Ai's predicament is testament to the power of a new 'webocracy,' re-motivating the relationship between art and politics on a global scale, or if it merely constitutes a renewed strain of 'political exoticism,' reminiscent of the wider commercialisation of Chinese art as protest art par excellence in the post-Cold War era.
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