By Nicole Chim
Ai Wei Wei is seen as a moral, political hero to the Western world but simultaneously an enemy and threat to the Chinese state. This is an identity carried by many artists in the East.
Ai is known for combining life and art into daring, politically-charged performances. He envisions his country seeing eye-to-eye with the ‘civilised world’ and carries an unwavering belief that democracy should be a universal human right, not a privilege of the West. His powerful work and message has won him recognition as the ‘most powerful’ artist in the world in 2011 by the ArtReview.
The artist has been exiled from China on the back of his criticism of the government, for which he has been hounded for tax evasion, dissemination of pornography and bigamy charges, which has led to his move to Cambridge.
Ironically, counter to China’s wishes, this has kept Ai in the news, made his art invaluable, and inspired the daring, unrelenting critic to create more art that drives momentum in China’s slow and long-overdue journey towards democracy.
But is Asian art only deemed valuable to the West because it is interested in challenging the East, China in particular, such as Asian artists symbolically side with the West? Has Ai’s exile to the West improved his reputation in the eyes of Westerners?
There are also artists like Cao Fei that excel with works concerning financial or social pressures, which contain no political connotations at all. In 2015, the then 36-year old created a five minute animation inspired by 1980s arcade games on ICC Tower, the tallest building in Hong Kong. Using familiar symbols like Pac-Man and Tetris blocks, Fei conveyed a middle class aspiration, represented by a house, a diamond, and a happily married couple, only to be crushed by a block, shattering to a sea of skulls floating across the facade, ending with the whole building flashing ‘Game Over’. What its saying is, making a living in Hong Kong is challenging, even if you work hard and play by the rules.
Cao’s name hasn’t blown up in the same proportions as Ai, but it is worth taking our hats off for people like Cao who refuse to make political art simply to flatter biases of Westerners and win over the media.
This is not to say Ai’s work or any emphasis on political subjects is ingenuine, but it is time for the Western world to appreciate that not all creations are developed through struggle.
Artistic expressions of views of the universe should be equally valued regardless of the nationality of artists. It is hoped that an appreciation for the creators’ take on self expression and their dedication to create sincere, meaningful art will not turn into an expectation for artists to disparage their own political regime.