Barbara Pollack and Barrett McCormick discuss Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment and contemporary Chinese art.
The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “The Emperor’s Private Paradise” inspires conversations with an art critic and a political scientist
As I was researching my TOC 336 article about the Milwaukee Art Museum's Summer of China exhibitions, I had an e-mail exchange with Barrett L. McCormick, the chair of Marquette University’s political science department, who spoke at the MAM’s July 7 panel “Ai Weiwei: The Collision of Art and Politics.” McCormick, who responded to my questions from Beijing, does not believe international protests on Ai’s behalf led to his release on bail.
“My best understanding is that those ruling in Beijing do not experience the U.S. as having much moral or economic authority,” he explains. “Wei was not released, but was moved from detention to house arrest. We do not know what he experienced while he was in detention or what threats were made, but the formerly outspoken Wei has fallen silent. In short, the government in Beijing has seemingly achieved what it wanted.”
I also interviewed New York–based art critic Barbara Pollack, who has a more optimistic view of what’s in store for Ai—whom she describes as “the only [artist] who’s taking risks on the scale that he’s doing”—and contemporary Chinese art. Pollack speaks about her book The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (timezone, 2010) at the MAM August 11. Here are some outtakes from our conversation:
Do you think the Chinese government has become more repressive recently because of calls for a Jasmine Revolution? Do you see that repression affecting artists?
BP: Yeah, what’s going on in China right now is really different from even a year ago. [When I was there in May,] everyone, especially in Beijing, was very concerned about Ai Weiwei’s arrest, and was talking a lot about government repression. The feeling is much more chilly.
Up to the past year, whenever I went to China, I could honestly say very few artists were even affected by censorship. Almost any kind of art could get shown, and there was a lot of government support for contemporary art.
I still think that there is a surprising amount. For example, the government is planning to build a contemporary art museum as part of the National Art Museum of China. It’s going to be a huge complex, about 150,000 square feet. So the artists very much feel as if they’re supported by their country. And until the arrest of Ai Weiwei, very few were really concerned about government interference.… Believe me, you will see in Chinese contemporary art lots of metaphors for repression and all kinds of social issues, including globalization and ecology.… But they’re usually wrapped up in metaphors and not directly outspoken.
When you talked about the youngest generation of Chinese artists in your book, you wrote that they didn’t know about Tiananmen Square, and that they were looking to anime and more innocuous influences. Has that changed?
BP: Yes. They still don’t know anything about Tiananmen Square, but I have seen a more wide range of styles and issues with the younger generation than when I wrote my book. They’re trying all sorts of new things. I think people are going to be really surprised by the art that’s coming out of China over the next ten years. It’s going to be vastly different from the art that we’ve seen up to now.
Are you surprised by how things have played out with Ai Weiwei?
BP: I was not surprised that Ai Weiwei was arrested. From my point of view, he was not arrested because of his artwork; he was arrested because of the types of things he was tweeting eight hours a day. I was shocked that he was released, because I thought the Chinese government was immune to pressure from the West.
What do you think might happen to him now?
BP: I have absolutely no idea what the future’s going to bring for Ai Weiwei. He’s a very smart artist and he’s usually a couple of steps ahead of the Chinese government, and I’m sure he’s going to figure out a way to stay ahead of them, even in his current situation.
Do you still believe art is important to maintaining a dialogue between China and the West?
BP: Yes. Anything we can do to encourage Chinese contemporary artists, we should do, because that’s going to give them more ability to voice their concerns. The worldwide protests on behalf of Ai Weiwei—his worldwide reputation certainly played a role in his release.
Barbara Pollack examines whether contemporary art can be a vehicle for social change in China at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China, September 14.