In the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum are six 5’x12′ iron boxes. Each features small plexiglass windows, on the side or on top or both, that allow you to peer inside and see three-quarter size dioramas built by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that depict his 81 days in prison in 2011, always under the close supervision of two guards while he eats, sleeps, showers, etc. The work, SACRED, part of a larger exhibit at the museum, According to What? (through August 10), is stirring, its strange size intensifying the feeling of confinement; it makes a powerful statement about state oppression that also makes the viewer, from his or her peculiar voyeuristic point-of-view, feel like a surveillance camera and thus somewhat strangely culpable.
It’s also a very personal statement, Ai depicting himself within his real experiences, which could account for some of its resonance: Ai Weiwei has transcended his role as artist and become an international Cause, and his friends—literally, an organization called Friends of Ai Weiwei—have turned that into a Brand. He’s the face of free expression in the oppressive East, the embodiment of Enlightenment and American values in a country with a contrasting set.
And now he’s marketed as such. The most stirring exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum right now might not be SACRED but the table at the entrance of the gift shop with all the Ai Weiwei junk for sale. All museums make money off of books and posters and mugs and postcards, and Ai’s work is the kind you’d want to take home: like, his Studies in Perspective make great refrigerator magnets. (Sort of hilariously, they don’t make anything with the one in which he’s giving the middle finger to the White House; that doesn’t fit into the narrative of the Western-minded hero in Red China. Mostly, just the Tienanmen Square one is for sale in various forms.)
But the commodification of Ai Weiwei is more intense than that of any other living artist, rivaled only, maybe, by, like, Van Gogh. You can buy Ai Weiwei smart phone cases and tablet skins; you can buy Ai Weiwei snap bracelets; you can buy mugs and buttons and wallets and scarves and skate decks and tea towels and handkerchiefs and luggage tags and an umbrella with his middle finger printed on the top. Most of these items include a quote from the Larry Warsh-edited 120-page book (also for sale!) Weiwei-isms, which, according to marketing copy, “demonstrates the elegant simplicity of Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics, and life.”
Troublingly, for me, most of these quotes alienate Ai from his politics and turn him into a vaguely political aphorist whose pithy observations could be co-opted by the Communist censors themselves. They’re too simple. “My favorite word? It’s ACT,” is the one most printed on stuff you can buy, though other popular ones are “My activism is a part of me” and “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”
This separation of product from real political engagement finds its fullest expression in one particular item on the Ai Weiwei table: Chinese Zodiac wine stoppers. One of Ai’s better-known works is Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which has been touring the world, and which was set up in New York around the fountain outside the Plaza in 2011. For the work, Ai sculpted 12 animal heads based on famous ones that once served as a fountain clock in the gardens at the Yuanmingyuan. During the Second Opium War in 1860, British and French troops destroyed the Old Summer Palace, and the Zodiac heads disappeared. (Over the years, seven have been recovered.) “In re-interpreting these objects on an oversized scale,” according to the work’s official website, “Ai Weiwei focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while extending his ongoing exploration of the ‘fake’ and the copy in relation to the original.” The wine stoppers aren’t, as far as I can tell, based on Ai’s designs or those from the Yuanmingyuan (and they’re not official Friends of Ai Weiwei merchandise), but their appearance in the context of other Weiwei gifts makes the museum’s intended connection obvious. What looting and repatriation might have to do with wine-stoppage is impossible to say.
I don’t condemn Friends of Ai Weiwei for what they do: by masterfully figuring out how to sell the artist to the world, they raise awareness about the limits of free expression around the world, especially in China; profits from the sale of products goes to support their work. Nor do I blame the Brooklyn Museum for trying to make some extra money; I’m thrilled that this important exhibition came not only to New York but to our borough. But the (over)simplification of Ai’s politics, necessary to maximize salability, risks diluting them—of stripping away the political provocation and turning Ai Weiwei and his real cause into something chic, easily adopted or discarded as needed.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart