Ai Weiwei & Marcel Duchamp – Debate Within the Art World Essay

Artists’ intentions are shaped by context, materials, ideas and audience. Discuss this statement with consideration of how audience interpretations of artworks have caused debate in the art world.

An artwork is often an artist’s subjective expression of their context. The ideology of artists, their perceptions of their contexts and the materials available to them play a significant role in the creation of their artworks. However, an artist’s intentions can be misinterpreted or disregarded by their audience, often sparking fervent discussion within the art world.

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Through the artists Ai Weiwei and Marcel Duchamp, we can clearly see how personal reactions to an environment shape the intent of artworks. Additionally, from their audiences’ inability to see past the face value of their work to its complex connotations, one can clearly witness the various misinterpretations of art and the resulting debate. Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist who works actively in sculpture, installation, architecture, photography, film, and uses these as a medium though which to portray his social and political criticisms.

Born in May 1957 in Beijing, Weiwei grew up during a time when the art scene consisted exclusively of government approved paintings and styles. It took a decade of liberty in New York for him to begin to explore his own radical practice, which now involves many different mediums. The artist’s intentions are clear; his works attempt to expose political mayhem and the struggle of the Chinese people for human rights. Weiwei aims to spark debate because he believes it results in change.

Although questioning of government policy is extremely detrimental to ones freedom in China, Weiwei attempts to use his art and iconic position to remove China of its corrupt political culture. His human rights views and aims are outlined in his statement; “If we don’t speak out, we are part of it”. During an interview, Weiwei stated, “Marcel Duchamp influenced me in a way to be aware of the mental condition, art is an effort of attitude. Duchamp’s influence is reflected through the ideological undertones of Weiwei’s work and the way he delicately examines the complex intersection between artistic practice and social activism. He creates artworks that are explicitly political while still realising artistic value in his execution. Not only does he have unique courage, unwavering determination and clear objectives, but Weiwei’s work is also remarkably poetic and human, allowing it to appeal to a wide audience despite its political message.

The unstable political state in Weiwei’s context means he rarely has the opportunity to exhibit his work in China. In Weiwei’s view, the country is unable to truly understand culture, art, and the value of creativity. Weiwei made a personal effort to expose the government after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake with an investigation of student casualties. Appalled by the efforts of Chinese officials to conceal the high casualties, he searched for and documented each of the 5385 children in the Tofu schools who’s lives were taken as a result of poor infrastructure.

Weiwei published the list on his blog, which was then shut down by Chinese authorities in 2009. Despite this, his efforts were validated by an installation work of the students backpacks titled “Remembering” (2010) exhibited at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich. Weiwei was arrested for his criticism of the government’s social injustice. However, to shield this issue from public debate, his detainment was said to be concerning ‘economic crimes’. Many were appalled at the actions taken against his freedom and thus an international debate was sparked.

Weiwei was able to fulfill his intentions to reveal the injustices of the Chinese Government through his strong engagement with his audience and the debate he caused in the realms of politics and art. The installation “Sunflower Seeds” (2010) exhibits Weiwei’s fearless campaign for human rights and freedom of expression. The work features 100 million hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds covering the entire floor of the Turbine hall at the Tate Modern museum in London. The subject matter of sunflower seeds has many indirect meanings, one being associated with his childhood.

His father, Ai Qing was a renowned modern poet in China. In 1958, Ai Qing was accused of being anti-communist, forbidden to write, and exiled to Xinjiang province, where Weiwei spent his youth. In this interpretation, the actual image of sunflower seeds represents his childhood experience of growing up in a farming area where sunflower seeds were in abundance, whilst also reflecting on the injustice the fascist government did to his father’s freedom. The work is also considered a direct allusion to the demagogic principles of the former ruler of China, Mao Zedong.

Chairman Mao is the sun, and his loyal followers are the sunflowers surrounding him; this is a metaphor for the unwavering obedience of almost all of the Chinese population under the rein of the communist leader. The seeds served as a symbol of Mao’s godlike power to render the world fertile, a theme that was often illustrated in his countless political portraits. This sunflower motif originated from a popular propaganda poster, which Weiwei exploits to remind his Chinese audience of the cycle of political bias that has ruled their country for decades.

Through the structural decision to juxtapose the organic form of a sunflower seed with the cold, hard, industrial choice of materials, the work has become a subtle criticism of political policy. Whilst the work has unquestionable ties to history, it also relates to the current condition of Weiwei’s world. The wide recognition of the product label ‘Made In China’ is representative of the culture’s ability to turn individuals into mass producers.

This is alluded to in the production process of the work; the installation consists of a hundred million seeds, crafted in porcelain and hand-painted by 1,600 skilled workers, a process that took two and a half years to complete. It is the monumental scale of this work that has an undeniably strong impact upon its audience. It is tremendously overwhelming yet capable of alluring viewers into the compelling political references within the work to then communicating them to the wider world.

Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” marks the zenith of his artistic achievements in his career. Weiwei is resolutely concerned with bringing about a change in society’s way of thinking and behaving through artistic ideas and actions. However, ironically his installation “Sunflower Seeds” captivates its audience by its sheer beauty and poetry. The realistic approach Weiwei has taken in representing sunflower seeds in terms of colour, line, and the physical texture is appealing to the audience and also conveys Weiwei’s political views.

Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming response to the installation, foot traffic has caused a lot of ceramic dust which is concerning for public health and viewers can no longer interact with the work. Weiwei’s intention was for people to respond to it physically, and so while the work may lose that powerful element of communication, viewers can still be enlightened through a visual encounter. Through “Sunflower Seeds” it is evident that the artist’s intentions and ideas were shaped by his contextual circumstances and demonstrated through his choice of materials.

An art newspaper states, “The public and critical response was overwhelmingly positive”. However, this particular work has inspired debate within a wide audience, including a political one. Their interpretation of the work as an expression of dissidence has lead to extreme reactions by the Chinese government that have been harmful to Weiwei’s freedom of thought, speech and artistic practice, a controversy which has sparked new debate within itself. The 1995 Weiwei produced a series of photographs, each 148 x 121 cm, entitled “Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn”.

They essentially portray three progressive stages of Weiwei dropping an ancient urn and attempt to challenge what society perceives as valuable. However, art critic Noah Buchan disapproves, “the exhibit fails to adequately examine the parameters of the question it is asking”. The destruction of the symbol means the destruction of what it represents; the breaking of a vessel that embodies and contains history is meant to contest the audiences priorities, whether it be history itself, the articles that represent it, or learning from it to create a better future.

The substitution of one kind of value for another occurs when he displays the documentation of the transformation in a museum, retaining the value of the object and giving it a present as well as historical significance. The aged, black and white colouring of the photos, in conjunction with the important subject matter, encourages people to look at the past in a critical way and make them conscious of the value that society puts on history. Urns of this age are usually cherished for their anthropological importance.

Weiwei strips it of its precious aura, only to reapply through the means of the art making practice. He challenges the way that objects from the past become idolised, causing them to lose a large part of their function. They become a monument, an artifact or a fossil. The destruction of an artifact, or rather the transformation of one, like Weiwei has done, allows for the object to be reborn with the new purpose of reflecting the current socio-cultural context. Weiwei uses his work to engage with issues pertinent to contemporary China, notably the loss of historic material due to rapid modernization.

The destruction of such a prized historical piece brought about debate on the validity of the Cultural Revolution. During this period, Communist leader Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of all things that had historical value as they were thought to be the root of capitalist, bourgeoisie ideologies. Weiwei appeals to the human instinct with each photo, by depicting the urn at a later stage in its fall. This connects with the audience on a psychological level, suggesting an urgency that leaves the viewer emotionally fraught.

By capturing the obliteration of the Han Dynasty urn, Weiwei formed a cenotaph; in documenting the very moment of destruction, an instant that had immeasurable connotations of loss, he draws attention to the many losses as a result of the tyrannical leadership of Mao and the devastation during the Cultural Revolution. The great extent to which this work resonated within the minds of its artistic audience was made evident by the arrest of Weiwei. This was a step the government took to ensure Weiwei’s political objections were not heard.

However, ironically it has instead caused immense debate within the art world. Upon hearing the news, various Hong Kong artists responded by creating a series of variations on the same theme that upheld Weiwei’s ideas and political opinions. One particular man photographed himself dropping a clock, suggesting the declining sanity of Chinese policy over time. Weiwei’s depiction of his broader collection of Neolithic urns expand the original meaning of “Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn” through his iconoclastic appropriations of historic vessels.

Weiwei treats the treasured artifacts as the foundation of a contemporary masterpiece by painting, dropping, grinding, or tagging them with a new age logo. The Coca-Cola logo on one of the urns represents the commercialisation of an ancient culture, representing the industrialisation of China. The urns coated in industrial paint maintain their original form but contrasts with the bright, commercial colours that seems ill fitting on the ancient figure. This reflects Weiwei’s criticism of the reality of the political world.

Through “Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn” it is evident that Weiwei’s negative opinions on Chinese politics have been shaped by the hindsight of his 21st century context. His choice of materials have shaped the way he portrays his ideas and his endeavour to make people aware of the value of history and its influence on their lives. This particular work has encouraged debate in numerous ways, particularly in the art world. His campaign for political awareness that resonated within the minds of many was brought to light after his arrest, inspiring a mass objection from his international audience.

Marcel Duchamp was a talented French artist active in the Dadaist period. He became a pioneer for a revolutionary way of thinking that resonates within the work of artists generations later. Challenging traditional artistic practice with irony and satire is a hallmark of Duchamp’s legendary career. Through his progressive ideas and groundbreaking works, he paved the way for newer movements and styles, such as Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism. Duchamp had a fascination with “putting art back in the service of the mind”, and so he rejected the work of other artists as “retinal” art, which intended only to please the eye.

His relentless probing of the conventional boundaries of art unsurprisingly caused intense debate within the art world. In 1912, he was asked to withdraw his painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase” from the Salon des Independants in Paris, causing him to become disenchanted with artistic groups. His shocking and provocative works were considered a senseless mockery of the standards of traditional art. The avant-garde ideas that spawned from his one-man movement were rejected and scorned by critics, misguiding the interpretations of his pedestrian audience.

His mission to shift the viewer’s understanding of art from its aesthetic properties to its conceptual meaning is evident through the works “Bicycle wheel” (1914) and “Fountain” (1917). Both of these works question the very notion of Art. Duchamp moved toward a creative process that was antithetical to artistic skill with his first readymade “Bicycle Wheel”. The use of found objects to create the work distanced him from traditional modes of artistic practice in an effort to emphasise the conceptual value of a work of art.

Through this technique, Duchamp was able to seduce the viewer through irony and verbal witticisms rather than relying on technical or aesthetic appeal. He stated, “the discovery of an article gives it artistic worth”. The ready-made objects in “Bicycle Wheel“ consisted of a fork and the wheel of an ordinary bicycle that rested upon a common stool. The mundane, mass-produced, commonplace nature of these objects is precisely why Duchamp chose them; to broaden the boundaries of art to no only encompass, but value conceptual meaning.

The juxtaposition of the ready-mades suggests motion and yet immobility, foreshadowing the repercussions of such a work. At barely 5 foot in height, the works small scale was inversely proportional to the colossal debate it caused. Although the composition of the work is not entirely free from artistic conventions, it did not assist in promoting his innovative artistic ideas, nor did it salvage the work from agonizing criticism. His work fused the products of modern industrial life with art, foreshadowing the future of artistic creation. Critics disregarded the sculpture, claiming it had no artistic value.

This rejection meant the work was ostracized from the art world, and hence a broader audience. The satirical work “Fountain” (1917) tested the limits of public taste and ultimately transgressed the boundaries of artistic technique. Art writer and critic, Jonathon Jones exclaims, “Marcel Duchamp’s urinal revolutionised modern culture in 1917”. However, critics of the time were disgusted at the mockery the work made of the art world. His use of irony, puns, alliteration, and paradox layered the works with humor whilst still enabling him to comment on the dominant political and economic systems of his time.

Duchamp bought the perfectly ordinary urinal, positioned it in a way that differed from its original purpose, tagged ‘R. Mutt’ on the side and submitted it for exhibition at a gallery that claimed to display all art as long as the artists managed costs. Duchamp was in fact one of the organisers and wanted to question the extent to which this generous notion applied. The scale of the work is considerably small in terms of sculpture, which is perfectly appropriate as only a handful of people ever saw the work in person.

However, after the piece was rejected from the gallery by popular demand, Duchamp arranged to have it photographed by Alfred Stieglitz and the photographs are now the only remaining documentation of the work apart from the vast amount of literature concerning it. The unchanged surface quality of the work, smooth and reflective, has an alluring quality when viewed in terms of art and not as a bathroom fixture. The motionless state pertains to the inert condition of the art world due to its obsession with aesthetics and disregard for conceptual agenda.

Despite the harsh rejection of the piece during the 1920’s, the importance of “Fountain” is reflected within the work of virtually every artist since his time. Its power was officially recognised in 2004 when it was voted the most influential work of modern art by 500 art-world professionals. Through the revolutionary works of Marcel Duchamp and the confronting political objections in the works of Ai Weiwei, we are able to see how the differing contexts of the two artists played an important role in the intentions of their art.

Their perspectives on the art and political world around them gave them reason to break boundaries in order to spark discussion and questioning of accepted norms. Both artists used their materials as a successful means of intensifying the ideas they wished to project. As a result of the audience interpretations of their work, there has been immense debate pertaining to the validity of their artistic practice and intentions. In spite of this, the work of both artists can be recognised as highly influential and artistically sound within their efforts to expose concerns pertinent to their world and time. ——————————————- [ 1 ]. http://www. guardian. co. uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/26/ai-weiwei-china-situation-quite-bad [ 2 ]. http://www. artdaily. com/index. asp? int_new=52969&int_sec=2 [ 3 ]. http://artradarjournal. com/ [ 4 ]. The Han dynasty urn is one of the most historically significant artifacts in Chinese history. [ 5 ]. http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/duch/hd_duch. htm [ 6 ]. http://www. guardian. co. uk/books/2008/feb/09/art

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