Multiplicity and Ai Weiwei...

The Disembodied Poetics of Ai Weiwei

By Marina Garcia-Vasquez.

Five black and white “arresting” images depict a Chinese model being strong-armed, handcuffed, taken away, interrogated, and stripped naked under government custody. The images, though heady in content and context, impart a delicate beauty. The violence is staged, muted, restrained and controlled. This is, after all, the pages of W magazine, a fashion editorial deftly titled “Enforced Disappearance,” developed in collaboration with the artist Ai Weiwei. It is his first work of art since being released from government custody having spent 81 days in a Beijing jail. He is still under surveillance and not permitted to leave his Beijing home. Imploring his media savvy, Weiwei used Skype to direct the W team from his home in what the New York Times described as “his disembodied self, open on the laptop.” “Enforced Disappearance” is a poetic re-enactment of Weiwei’s own time in jail. It is also informed stylistically from his past. In the early 80s, Weiwei studied art in New York and took snapshots of everyday street life. That collection of images is titled “New York Photographs 1983-1993.” The “Disappearance” editorial draws inspiration from a series of Weiwei images depicting the Tompkins Square Riots of ‘88, a punk revolution against gentrification of the Lower East Side. According to Tate Etc, Weiwei’s witness to those American riots “…helped instill an unwavering belief in individual freedom and social justice.” With this editorial and the means in which it was created, Weiwei employs the multiplications of time and place, new technologies, global experiences, and negation of nations. He says “The conflicts between individuals and authorities—be they economic, cultural, political, or religious. I am using my personal experience to address a condition. “ His disembodied approach culls from many movements and ideologies. The editorial then becomes “a hyper novel with many beginnings” and with many meanings through time.

Ai Weiwei’s practice as an artist is one of renaming and reinterpreting. The strength of his art is in social commentary. Everything he does is with measured meaning. His large-scale installations pull from the historical Chinese identity and moves meaning forward to question globalization, industrialization, capitalism, and authority through objects. In crafting “Disappearance,” the discourse is both on American capitalist incentives and Chinese censorship. The two separate acts of arrest are funneled through one provocative fashion story. It is seemingly light-hearted but at its root has the undeniable politics of self, furthering Weiwei’s activist platform. In the poem “The Question of Subversion” Edward Jabes writes, “If I give the same title to two different texts are they not all the more opposites for the arbitrary, circumstantial unity imposed on them? The conflict is internal.” Weiwei’s internal conflict within the “Disappearance” culls from the Beat poet tradition of disembodied poetics. By definition disembodied poetics is married to a legacy of social protest, “an urgency toward the exploration and the enhancement of a deeply-rooted human and natural potential.” Weiwei’s own language is image based. Objects and images convey more universal opportunities at meaning than Chinese script or the Arabic alphabet. The language in “Disappearance” means to question the effects of harnessed human potential. Language being the proudest tool to evoke resistance, disembodied poetics aims at using new technologies, the everyday world as a stage for performance, and unfettered personal politics to embolden others. Disembodied poetics is a call to action, thought action.

The existence of “Disappearance” in a glossy magazine has thought potential. It is an idea that foments and grows. Weiwei in his own vision threads his youthful American idealism with his more adult Chinese dissidence. He sees both experiences as the same conversation. His “I” becomes a “we”. The states of absence and disappearance promote self-will. In developing “Disappearance”, can we
say that Ai Weiwei is both Chinese and American in tradition? Can we negate his allegiance to any one nation? Like Jabes’s exiles and displacements, Weiwei’s whole life is a conversation of and with the other; He is a mind in exile. The self-conscious effects of the Chinese Revolution on an individual who dares to think as an outsider, who considers himself an artist with politics. Not unlike the exile in “The Book of Questions” where there are no nations but books. There are no nations for allegiance, only thoughts of the mind. Radical otherness. Weiwei’s language images in “Disappearance” evoke a deep remoteness to the jarring realities of arrest.

Weiwei has been compelled by history to confront experiences of marginality, deprivation, and exile. In Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For The Next Millennium we learn of the tangential knotted experience of mankind through multiplicity. The “unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, towards which a whole magnitude of converging causes have contributed.”
Weiwei’s collection of black and white snapshots from the 80s riots are now featured in a museum in Taiwan under an exhibition titled Absent. He says, “Absence itself is the current status of my art and my person and a part of my cultural circumstance.” We are left to question the idea of absence. Who is absent? What is absent? Certainly the power of meaning is not absent. As with the case of Weiwei’s physical absence during the W magazine shoot of “Disappearance” his disembodied participation occurred through the Internet and Skype. Technology steps in as a powerful tool to aide in the will for self-reflection. With new modes of communication, Weiwei works around physical distance and government authority to develop provocative meaning through language. He says in W magazine, “The feelings and emotions were close, but the camera was so far away… The process became a part of the work. Art is always about overcoming obstacles between the inner condition and the skill for expression.”

From his studio in Beijing, Weiwei, had a clear view of Rikers Island. The W magazine team was shooting the interrogation scenes at the infamous New York jail. Actively watching from his computer, Weiwei imparted his desire to demonstrate more grit through the straightforward surveillance of the naked model subject. He wanted to retain the sense of looming danger and hopelessness in the frame. Rikers jail becomes a character in this narrative. This Deco section of Rikers was built in the tradition of the notorious French Fresnes jail in 1906. It is the jail where active surveillance was first experimented with and developed with what Foucault called “Panopticons”, the circular prison model by eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that let guards observe a large number of inmates from a central position. Here we find how the identity of the prison lends itself to furthering the mulitiplicity of experience through history. With careful observance, the prison frame becomes tantamount, an expression of arrest through time. Calvino writes of multiplicity, “The structure of which is accumulative, modular and combinatory.”

Ai’s greatest theme in his artwork is in anti-system, anti-establishment. He says about his early New York photographs “I become aware of the special significance of this kind of confrontation as an ongoing endeavor—whether it be in relation to individual experiences or the present-day circumstances of global economic collectivisation.” It is no accident that in escaping Communist China Weiwei’s hopelessness found validation in the restless flicker of American public protest. As a young man, that unruly boisterousness he found in the East Village was a great marker of identity. He seized the lawless spirit for himself forever entwining notions of East and West, individual and the collective, developing his own hardcore identity, roughed and ready to take on authority. Signing the proverbial middle finger many of his works

The Tompkins Square Riots was very much about self-autonomy. As a low-income population on the fringe, it was colored by virtues of “immorality”, hardcore punk, free transexuality, codified black market commerce, and open homeless encampments. New York City officials considered it a lawless land of filth to be wrestled and gutted. In photographing his neighborhood Weiwei says, “I was interested in individual rights, group rights, and their relation to power. Power in the form of the police control—and the resulting confrontations and abuse of those rights.” A New York Times article published at this time quotes the band, The Backyards to describe the sentiment of the East Village punk mentality, “Must be dedicated, hard-hitting, in it for life. Willing to die naked in an alley for your anti-art.”

Photos: Max Vadukul

This undying live-or-die mentality invigorates Weiwei. By producing this sleek fashion editorial for a Western magazine, it heightens and dissolves the pretense of government control or authority. By editorializing his experience he is at once mocking and taking away its power. It becomes crystalline, as an object of beauty locked in our memory. He has created a disembodied poem at once about China, the United States, of 80s New York grit, of censorship, social unrest, and personal revolution. It is a black leather jacket of non-conformity. It is a shackled wrist. It is both a snap-and-shoot camera of yesteryear and an iPhone and Macbook. As it is multiplicity it is also a lightness not unlike Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. Calvino writes, “Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”

“Enforced Disappearance” becomes a fable, a printed pictorial lesson to learn from, a leaning into the future from the past. Although Weiwei is confined to China, his work and meaning is not. It supersedes nations, history, or time. His disembodied poems are universal. They are light. They are mulitplicty. They are continuous. As all things knotted and tied, experience is bound up to spiraled meaning.

Sources: Arpon YL. Getting Away with Ai Weiwei, The Nation December 17, 2011 Calvino I. Six Memos For The Next Millennium Vintage 1993 Faiella L. The Making of an Artist: Ai Weiwei’s New York Years,, July,12, 2011 Li Y. The Artist as Activist Tate Etc. Autumn 2010 Patterson, Clayton Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. Seven Stories Press, 2007 Phaidon blog Ai Weiwei is missing in Taipei October 2011 Purdum, Todd “Melee in Tompkins Sq. Park: Violence and Its Provocation”. The New York Times: p. A1. (August 14, 1988). Ryzik M. Dissident Creates By Remote Control The New York Times October 13, 2011

Marina Garcia-Vasquez is a contributing writer for by such and such.