Just because he designed Beijing’s 2008 National Olympic Stadium — along with the Swiss-based architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron — doesn’t mean he will actually ever visit it. “I look at the stadium as a project, not as a national stadium. It takes the same passion for me to build a stadium as it does a toilet facility,” said Ai Weiwei of Beijing, China, a man who possesses not only an overwhelming artistic prowess and architectural ingenuity, but also a striking sense of individuality that pushes him to straddle the fine line between artistic freedom and stringent Chinese law. He has yet to visit the construction site, and said: “I have no interest in national activities, and I don’t see myself as working for the government.”
Although his free-spirit personality and creative attitude may appear to be fairly typical of the persona of a professional artist, that Weiwei was raised in the People’s Republic of China, where communism has defined both the civil society and governmental structure for decades, sheds a new light on his independence and daring willingness to create art which follows not as much the orders of the government, as it does his own feelings and impulses.
Weiwei gave an hour-long lecture yesterday in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium to an audience of students, faculty and fans. His presentation involved a PowerPoint slideshow that not only traced his career as an artist, but also shed insight on the political and cultural history of China. He interspersed images of his fine artwork, which includes sculpture, black and white photography, furniture, and objects of interior design like lamps, with the floor plans and site maps of his landscape and architectural building designs. By including an array of snapshots of himself and co-workers, as well as images of his own home and studio — which he personally designed — Weiwei provided the audience with a clear picture of his life as a spunky individual and hard working professional.
Given that China’s population is the largest in the world, Weiwei made note of the nation’s exceptionally small artistic community, and the subsequent lack of ingenuity amongst many of the Chinese workers he has come into contact with. “Communism killed the initiative for people to do things better,” he said, “it has been rough for Chinese architecture, but not a problem,” he continued. “Most of the buildings were designed by local, smart guys,” and after a silence, he added, “like me.”
Weiwei, after studying at the Bejing Film Academy and attending the Art Student League and Parsons School of Design in New York, did not receive professional training in architecture, but claimed that he “learned to make use of his skills” because he “wanted to make a difference in society.”
And a difference he certainly did make. As his artistic will was driven by a combination of government-funded projects, and items of personal expression, he overtly and indirectly provided controversial commentary of China’s cultural history — one that is defined by a line of dictatorial dynasties and limited human freedoms.
Through the display of his controversial project in which he transformed ancient pottery vases into pieces of contemporary art by painting over their detailed designs with bright, solid colors, Weiwei communicated the idea of today’s progression of China into a new era of history, one in which contemporary art supercedes that of generations before, and the values upheld by centuries of former Chinese rulers are beginning to give way to new Chinese norms. “Weiwei’s work with pottery was revolutionary,” said Natasha Cuperman, an architectural thesis student, “I was almost aghast when I first saw it.’”
Weiwei’s artwork, however, represents more than an outlet of political commentary. It demonstrates an advanced level of technical skill, and a driving artistic vision, which is prevalent through his manipulation of material and repeated implementation of the definitive artistic philosophy of simplicity. As he constructed a map of China out of 143 separate pieces of tieli wood, as well as a solid block of compressed tea that measured to be one cubic meter in volume, Weiwei’s creative visions proved to be executed through the manipulation and reformation of relatively simple material items.
Weiwei concluded his presentation with a discussion of the future Olympic stadium currently being built to hold 100,000 spectators. As it’s futuristic structure features an interwoven pattern of numerous steel beams, it is clear that he and his co-workers are aiming to enter the ever-advancing field of design.
“[Weiwei’s] presentation was great because it demonstrated his attitude to challenge principles of art and architecture,” said Hyuck Jin Yoon, a fifth year architecture student.
As he concluded his lecture by saying, “We are no longer in the Cold War time, we are in a great time, an information age where there is opportunity to reconsider the importance of individual beings in their individual lives. Day by day I accept all opportunities to make a mark,” Weiwei identified the optimism that will continue to guide him through his advancing career in art and architecture.