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

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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