German idols

November 5, 2011
mgb11_ai_wei_wei_16_portrait_LIGHTHOCH

In Germany, Ai Weiwei is the new Joseph Beuys. I arrived at this conclusion in Berlin, after seeing an exhibition of film footage of Joseph Beuys in Japan, at the Hamburger Bahnhof; and a show of 220 photos by Ai Weiwei, at the Martin-Gropius Bau.

I’ve been in Deutschland for a conference on the Chinese writer and artist, Gao Xingjian, who received the Nobel Prize in 2000. The conference was held in Erlangen, just outside of Nuremberg, but I’ve taken the opportunity to visit Berlin, Vienna and Munich as well.

The blockbuster in Berlin was Faces of the Renaissance at the Bode Museum, but the enormous crowds this show is attracting made it a singularly unattractive prospect. Instead, I fell back on the city’s other exhibition venues, which must be unparalleled anywhere in the world for sheer scale and ambition. If the quality of art were of equivalent magnitude, the visitor’s happiness would be complete.

As usual, the Martin-Gropius Bau was hosting multiple shows: a retrospective of the legendary American photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith; a huge survey of the work of Hokusai; a rambling historical exhibition about Polish art and culture; and Ai Weiwei in New York – Photographs 1983-1993. Of these, the Hokusai was the highlight, but it was also an exercise in eyestrain, not to mention the inconveniences of dealing with queues and crowds.

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The really peculiar event was the Ai Weiwei, which was virtually deserted. This showed the good sense of the general public because the famous print of Hokusai’s wave was far more interesting than the entire collection of Ai Weiwei’s photos, which were no great advance on the snapshots any of us might take on our holidays. The only value of this collection was as a documentary record of the Chinese artists, writers, composers and filmmakers that passed through New York during these years. While some such as the composer, Tan Dun, or the director, Chen Kaige, might be familiar names, the vast majority would be unknown to western audiences.

Why devote so much space to such an obscure and visually inert display? Those three syllables: Ai-Wei-wei, provide the one-and-only answer. Ever since his recent arrest by the Chinese authorities and subsequent release, Ai Weiwei has become a fetish for the contemporary art world. A long-winded text at the entrance of the photography show sings the artist’s praises and recounts how the German artworld organized a petition of 4,000 signatures that helped get him out of custody. The implication, probably for the first time ever, is that the art crowd managed to achieve a political objective.

To drive the message home, the wall text draws direct connections between Ai Weiwei and dissidents such as Wei Jinsheng and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who have both suffered long-term imprisonment. It announces that “Ai has always understood his art as political”; and ends with the rousing statement: “the rule by law in China is still the arbitrary rule of law of the state authorities.”

While Ai Weiwei’s release came as a surprise to most of us, who didn’t think we’d be seeing him for at least five years, it’s a big call to suggest that the pressure of western opinion managed to sway the Chinese authorities. In the past, the Chinese government has shown itself to be completely indifferent to such campaigns. They have their own reasons for anything they do.

The problem with the Ai Weiwei obsession is that he has become the supreme focal point for discussions of contemporary Chinese art. Yet there are many other artists and issues that are equally worthy of attention, including those with no obvious political agenda. The dreary photography show at the Martin-Gropius Bau is justified solely because it is the work of Ai Weiwei, and therefore of ineffable importance.

We have seen this worshipful tendency before, in the way the Germans made an idol out of Joseph Beuys (1921-86) in the years following his death. One of the great eccentrics of twentieth century art, this self-styled shaman never did what was expected of him, leaving behind sculptures, installations and the detritus of various actions that resemble fragments retrieved from an archaeological dig. Sometimes the work looks like junk, sometimes it is junk: decayed batteries, piles of dirt swept up from the street, lumps of grimy fat or beeswax, and so on.

Nevertheless, anything left by Beuys is now treated as if it were imbued with his sacred aura. Everything is seen as a precious work of art, and a relic of the saint.

I was reminded of the undiminished strength of the Beuys cult by a show at the Hamburger Bahnhof called Joseph Beuys: 8 Days in Japan and the Utopia of Eurasia, which featured some 30 hours of rediscovered film footage recorded on a visit that Beuys made to Japan in 1984. One watches him arriving at the airport, checking into the hotel, addressing press conferences, walking in a park, giving a ‘concert’ with Nam June Paik, which consists of him repeatedly clearing his throat. It’s not riveting entertainment, although there is a lingering fascination with Beuys himself, dressed in his trademark felt hat, fisherman’s vest with bulging pockets, white shirt and stove pipe pants. His angular face and blue eyes project charisma and intensity, even if his actions are often unremarkable.

There is a scene in which Beuys films an ad for Nikka Whiskey that has a strange echo of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. One thinks of Bill Murray raising his glass of Suntory while a director yells “More intensity!” The difference is that Beuys is standing in a forest, toasting Mother Nature.

The publicity associated with the Beuys exhibition is both reverential and gormless. We learn that “Beuys takes a critical stance towards Japanese society of the time, while his performances also contain references to the possible consequences of the constant disregard of ecological concerns. These consequences dramatically made themselves felt in the recent tragic events in Fukushima.”

If only they’d listened to the prophet Joseph Beuys, Fukushima might never have happened! Once again it seems that artists had the chance to save the planet.

In founding his own political platform in 1963, the Eurasia Party, Beuys had already put forward his blueprint for world salvation: “He was of the opinion that the world could be saved through a merger between Western culture, which he viewed to be of an essentially rationalist mindset, and Eastern culture, which he thought was more spiritual in its outlook. Without this merger, Beuys thought the world was irrevocably heading towards destruction and would be completely subsumed by materialism.”

He was certainly correct on the second point, but we have not yet toppled into the abyss. Beuys’s view of a simple binary opposition between East and West, between spirituality and rationality, is a piece of modern orientalism. There is not a lot of deep spirituality left in post-Mao China, and not much rationality in contemporary American politics.

Even though Beuys’s ideas on “Social Plastic” (AKA. Social Sculpture) are allegedly recognisable in Ai’s work today, he has never been as nutty as his German forbear. One might say that Ai Weiwei is the epitome of rationality and calculation. His artistic interventions have a resonance in China they could never possess in the West, where similar gestures have been made many times over. He is not an exponent of wild, utopian schemes, but a consistent critic of official policies.

It takes courage to be a political critic in China, but this feat does not transform an artist into a Superman. For Gao Xingjian, whose plays were viewed as “poisonous weeds” in his native land, the desire for Supermen and Messiahs, is one of the most dangerous obsessions in contemporary culture. Gao believes that “art will be saved when we have purged aesthetics of all judgements of political value.” It is the same argument one finds in a classic book of 1927 by the French thinker, Julien Benda – The Treason of the Intellectuals.

The argument in both cases is that when artists and writers dabble in politics they risk creating compromised works that are praised for their ideological stance, not for any intrinsic quality. While artists may have revolutionary political views, this does not ensure there will be anything revolutionary about their work – to sacrifice creative freedom for a political stance is to give up self-reflection in favour of a soap-box. From the audience’s point of view there is no reason why we cannot sympathise with an artist’s politics without becoming idolaters.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 5, 2011

Joseph Beuys: 8 Days in Japan and the Utopia of Eurasia, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, until 1 January 2012
Ai Weiwei in New York: Photographs 1983-1993, Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, until 18 March 2012