Ai Weiwei and the art of surveillance

Lisson Gallery chooses the Chinese artist's less political work.

A huge amount has been written about Ai Weiwei since he was arrested last month at Beijing Airport for unspecified "economic crimes". So the first retrospective in the UK of his work, at London's Lisson Gallery, comes at a poignant time, with the ongoing detention of the Chinese artist and social critic.

I became aware of Ai's worsening predicament last year. Walking around his studio complex in the north-east of Beijing one overcast April morning, I noticed two surveillance cameras attached to utility poles outside the front gate. Plain-clothes police officers also patrolled the street. Later I learned that the cameras had been installed in 2009 by the Chinese authorities, to observe the traffic going in and out, despite Ai's compulsion to broadcast the minutiae of his life via Twitter and his blog.

On display at the Lisson is a replica of these cameras, but carved out of a single block of white marble. The work, entitled "Surveillance Camera", is a commentary on the Big Brother state in which Ai lives. It is pointed out of the gallery's vast window, seemingly recording the Lisson's own CCTV camera outside, or perhaps the schoolchildren in the playground across the road. In the light of his detention, the sculpture acquires an added depth. Ai had complained about the ubiquitous police surveillance in China just two days before he vanished.

The Lisson is also showing "Coloured Vases" (2009). The installation is made up of 6,000-year-old Han Dynasty vessels, which he has dipped in bright, sometimes garishly coloured industrial paint. These red, yellow and purple vases are one of the show's highlights.

Ai has creatively vandalised ancient vases before. One of his most famous and controversial pieces is the performance "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995), which is remembered in a photo-triptych. The black-and-white pictures show Ai dropping an ancient ceramic vase, which shatters on the floor at his feet. And in another work he made in 1994, Ai stamps the Coca-Cola logo across an ancient vase's exterior.

Unfortunately, these are not on display. Indeed, one would never guess that Ai is widely touted as the world's most daring contemporary artist. The Lisson has instead chosen to exhibit less confrontational, more contemplative works, ranging from video installations to sculptures.

We see a bent coffin and benches made from salvaged wood from temples set for demolition, and four wooden chests with round holes in them so it seems like you are watching different phases of the moon.

These sculptures are beautiful and skillfully crafted, but they pale in comparison to Ai's most important works. Consider the photograph from 2009, where Ai stands in Tiananmen Square, the site of the Chinese government's crushing opf the student-led democracy movement in 1989, with his shirt open, displaying an upper-case "FUCK" printed on his chest. Or consider his memorial to the 5,000 pupils crushed to death in shoddily built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which spelled out in children's rucksacks the words of a grieving mother: "She lived happily on this earth for seven years".

Although this retrospective is a good introduction to Ai's work - and the best we are likely to see in London in the near future -- it feels like an opportunity has been missed. Ai is not the only absentee from his London show. His most politically daring works are missing, too.

For a better sense of Ai's activism and meditations on architecture, Chinese culture and art, one can read the collection of blog posts anthologised in Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. We read about how he helped design the Birds Nest stadium but then called for an Olympic boycott; and we learn of his concern for workers' rights, when he writes that 40,000 workers in southern China lose fingers in machinery accidents each year because of poor safety standards.

Ai was born in 1957. Like many of his generation who were raised during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he received little formal education. Until he started blogging in 2006, Ai had very little writing experience and barely knew how to type, making this book even more astonishing.

"Ai Weiwei" runs at the Lisson Gallery, London NW1 until 16 July

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496