HINTS OF THE WAY IN CHINESE ARTIST AI WEIWEI
Google artist Ai Weiwei, and chances are one of first samples of his work you’ll see is a photograph of his arm.
It is outstretched, away from the camera, like the trunk of an elephant blatting at something.
Except the “blat” is his middle finger, standing straight up like a cypress tree while the rest of his fingers bow low.
The gesture is, among other things, one we typically associate with road rage.
But it’s no moron behind the wheel on the receiving end of his blat. Photographs show him blatting at the White House, at Tiananmen Square, at the Eiffel Tower and other symbols of humanity’s public institutions.
These institutions, he seems to say, and most often governments behind them, are the morons who make humankind's “roads” through life, through the world, so dangerous. So anti-human. So deathly.
Those are the roads on which, and the drivers at which, artist Ai Weiwei seems most profoundly, indeed prophetically enraged.
At the risk of offending any readers – for which I do offer my apologies – I find the photographs to be clever and even funny
What is distasteful, even obscene, to me aren’t the gestures. Instead, I am offended by the values (or lack thereof) too often symbolized by those public institutions. I’m not sure, but I suspect I’ll finally be offended by “the finger” when real human evil no longer exists. In those far-off days (one hopes they aren't far-off, but I'm thinking they are), I'll probably have nothing better to do than cluck my tongue over naughty gestures instead of over criminals in banks and real estate and oil companies and among violent religious fundamentalists and so forth. Criminals too powerful to attack, too "big to let fail."
It comes as little surprise, then, to find out Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3 of this year. United Press International (UPI) reports today, 39 days later, his whereabouts still have not been disclosed. He hasn’t seen a lawyer; he hasn’t seen his family.
There is a whole lot that can be said about Ai Weiwei. His art includes writing, photography, film, sculpting. (His father was a poet, so it's in the family too.) He helped design the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing.
But he also has been an outspoken and forceful critic of his own government.
The Bird Nest, and all of the national pride and industrial-strength propaganda invested in the Beijing Olympics, he soon turned against them, publicly, because of all from which they were intended to divert attention: the horrendous human costs of Chinese national policies, the Olympics themselves included.
Before that, he went loudly public about the payoffs and criminal indifference involved in the shoddy construction of school buildings in Szechuan Province. Those buildings collapsed in an 2008 earthquake, killing 5000 children. To this day, the Chinese government has said nothing to explain the tragedy. Only Ai Weiwei went public, found the names of all 5000 children, published them, took the side of the brutalized families in their outsized grief and horror.
He puts his body where his art is, that’s for sure.
But what I want to reflect on even more, here, is the fact he is an artist doing these things.
Among what I now proverbially call “the ten thousand things” that drew me to Orthodoxy is the role of art in our life of faith. Early and chief among these “discoveries” on my part is the fact our Liturgy is referred to as “liturgical poetry.”
Orthodoxy is a potent witness to both the necessity and power of art.
It is a necessity, in liturgical life, because only art is “fluid” enough to embrace the Ineffable, the Unspeakable, without hubris; without pretending really to embrace it, to control, tame, domesticate it.
It is powerful because it continually “dissolves” the supposedly fixed, calcified, immutable boundaries of our world. Here's what I mean:
Scholars say the Protestant Reformer John Calvin was centrally responsible for ending the stasis, the fixity of the late Middle Ages. He focused on the concept of “calling," of "vocation," in his theology. And lo and behold, in time people stopped being satisfied to be a cobbler just like Dad, a seamstress just like Mom, and began wondering what God had in mind for them. They stopped thinking political arrangements, and above all the royalty who benefited from those arrangements, were set in stone.
Things could be questioned. Things could be changed.
Maybe. Once upon a time I was Presbyterian, and I took a certain amount of pride in that. But nowadays, I say it was art that did it. Calvin's powerful theology only "worked" because the supposedly immovable "walls" of royal society and everyday life as well already were wiggly because of art.
Religious or spiritual art, to be sure; but art with its world-dissolving power, it fluid boundaries that say nothing is fixed, nothing is forever except God Himself.
Thousand-year Reichs as well as People’s Republics don’t like to be reminded they aren’t forever. And they sure don’t like to be reminded of the living God, not the real God. Neither they, nor Wall Street for that matter, like to be reminded that all of our ideas, our ideologies, our theories and constructs are what Orthodox saints call "a cloud of mosquitoes," a "cloud of gnats." And, as James the brother of our Lord said, our lives are a "mist," a "vapor."
Try trading that one on the NYSE.
Regardless of the content of Ai Weiwei’s art, I suspect it is the fact of art that most threatens the bullies in power. He wrote in his blog in November 2009: “What can [the Communist authorities] do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination and they lack both the joy and the ability to fly” (emphasis mine).
That is the threat. Wooden-brained head-bashers, granite-hearted market-bashers have no joy, don’t know how to fly. They have no art. Even Hitler, who had a taste for art, had to declare vast acres of it “decadent” and disappear it.
And burn books.
So what’s this business in my title about “Hints of the Way … in … Weiwei”?
Hints, hints only. I have no idea whether Weiwei is a Christian, although I’m inclined to doubt it. But no one escapes the ferment of the Spirit, and surely he has not even tried to escape it.
FIRST: he simply creates.
I’ll leave it for future blog posts here, maybe, to discuss the Sophiologists in Orthodox writings, and, for me at any rate, Hieromartyr Pavel Florensky in particular. For now, I just want to affirm that Weiwei is an artist, he creates, and that is “dangerously” close to the uncreated Fire of the Spirit. It’s certainly dangerous for the world, for how we consistently arrange things – cultural, social, economic, political – entirely for the benefit of a few, with no more than head-nodding reference in the general direction of the Ancient of Days.
SECOND: he has a passion for justice.
Let's go back to the grieving families of Szechuan Province.
News reports from there in recent days, examining the impact of Ai Weiwei's arrest and disappearance, have included interviews with some of the families.
Villagers are quoted as grieving anew, this time for the artist, because now there is no one who cares for them, no one who speaks for them.
YHWH is "defined" at Exodus 3:14 as the One who hears the cry of the suffering. YHWH's "hearing" is thereafter in the Bible a sure and certain sign God is about to act on behalf of His people.
Ai Weiwei heard that cry, hears that cry, will always hear that cry so long as he has life and breath. That suggest -- strongly, to me -- his heart is mighty close to the Heart of the Father.
His work on behalf of the peasants of Szechuan Province, on behalf of those brutally displaced by the Bird Nest and other Beijing Olympic venues, the murdered and disappeared in his country's human rights atrocities: these are matters of the Spirit. They are labors on behalf of the "anonymous Jesus" of Matthew 25:31ff.
I will be, perhaps stupid, but nevertheless bold to say this: Ai Weiwei ministers to Jesus, all the time.
THIRD: he blats at, and right through, the pretenses and the injustices of the wealthy and powerful.
His blat photographs may not match the King James Version of the Bible for beauty, elegance, and public decorum (although the KJV has its own rough sections that have to be expurgated for public reading). They are, the photos are, continuations of the painful and lonely task of the prophet: mocking our idols, unmasking our lies, anguishing over the untold human cost behind the public symbols.
A documentary about Ai Weiwei titled “Never Sorry” will be released in the near future. You can learn more about it at producer/director Alison Klayman’s website about the documentary, http://www.aiweiweifilm.org/en/.