Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ai Weiwei exhibit considered as commentary on John Ruskin

What sustains artistic values in a totalitarian society? Ai Weiwei has found a unique answer, which I see as a revision and supportive critique of what bothered the art critic John Ruskin about such values well over a century ago in Victorian England.

Ruskin raised his voice against a numbing uniformity in the creation of the manmade physical world after the Industrial Revolution had triumphed.  Things made for use or ornament had become more and more the product of wage-slavery. Labor had been made routine and irrespective of the laborer's joy or imaginative input. Ruskin believed that any manufacturing process that aided this kind of routinization necessarily kills beauty, which he linked firmly to the health of the human soul.

We in the U.S. are well aware — thanks to all those items marked "made in China" that we own  — that the Industrial Revolution is as advanced in today's China as anywhere on the planet.  But where Ruskin had to uphold beauty in the face of aggressive mass dehumanization, Ai Weiwei must carry out a similar project in a totalitarian society.

Victorian England, though not totalitarian, had the class system as a given, and though the factory-owners and the system they created were newcomers to it, the social order was well-established upon a time-tested hierarchy. One of Ruskin's corrective ideas was to restore the unity of intellectual and physical labor, thereby promoting human happiness. This would also break down social divisions encouraged by separating different kinds of labor: "It is only by labour that thought can be made happy," he wrote, "and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity."

On the face of it, Ai Weiwei's manner of working, as indicated in the exhibition "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art until July 21, is anti-Ruskin. He is the master who enlists countless "apprentices" in realizing his concepts. It's a derivation of the Renaissance workshop model that Ruskin disdained. To memorialize the destruction of the 2009 Sichuan earthquake, for example, Ai had work crews gather the twisted rebar from destroyed buildings, including substandard schools whose collapse killed over 5,000 children, and straighten it out, rod after rod. It is definitely "grunt work," and an accompanying video details the noisy, painstaking labor involved.

Here's the difference, though. In a society whose hierarchy is now ordered according to the individual's degree of tacit acceptance of the ruler's whims and policies, Ai's workers are complicit in a process that resists official suppression of the disaster's facts. Their engagement in creating hundreds of sunflower seeds or river crabs out of porcelain (to allude to two other Ai Weiwei projects)  is a microcosm of the underlying resistance to totalitarianism wherever it gains the upper hand.

Carefully stacked wood is held in by parallel-bar structure (not visible) in this Ai Weiwei piece.
The most moving piece in the exhibition both celebrates the yearning of the individual for freely developed personal integrity and implicitly deplores the way rigid governmental authority blocks it. The work illustrated here pays tribute (according to a docent) to Ai Weiwei's father's habit of making the neatest possible woodpile. The wood in the piece is stacked anew at each installation of "According to What?" and hemmed in by a framework of  parallel bars, equipment designed for the gymnastics that are a common feature of Chinese playgrounds. The wood is locked in, celebrating neatness but inherently useless, and the parallel bars, misdirected from their purpose of aiding individual physical development, function now as a barrier.

The cruel difficulty that totalitarianism imposes on achieving the happiness that can link thought and labor is rarely so concisely and poignantly displayed.

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