The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

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APR 2012 Issue

A Little Yes and a Big No?

When George Grosz called his autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No, he knew whereof he spoke, with his Weimar grimace. I thought about his wry countenance when I perused Ai Weiwei’s sensational and certainly not ironic self-advertising in a desultory file of clippings I’ve accumulated.

And I also thought about that marvelous writer (for that is what he was) Friedrich Nietzsche, who in Part I of Thus Spake Zarathustra told us that the marketplace was full of solemn jesters, but:

Far from the market place and from fame happens all that is great: far from the market place and from fame the inventors of new values have always dwelt.

That 19th-century spokesman called himself “a lover of leaps and tangents.” I suppose Ai Weiwei could call himself a lover of leaps and tangents, and above all, a lover of what the Romans called the “spectaculum” (which Nietzsche took pains to condemn when he wrote with pungent distaste of the Wagner brouhaha at the Wagner festivals in Bayreuth where they sold beer mugs with his portrait on them). His later contempt for his early idol Wagner is summed up when he said that Wagner wanted “‘Espressivo’ at any price.”

Ai Weiwei bummed around in New York in the 1980s where he took in liberal doses of our highly developed use of publicity—an American specialty brought to perfection with the help of Sigmund Freud.

I suppose I too am a lover of leaps and tangents, which in today’s case takes note of yet another news item, New York Times, March 6, 2012, with the arresting headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds.’” Regretfully, the Tate could only buy 8 million of the 100 million they had exhibited in 2010.

The Times dutifully reported that the Tate acquired 8 million of the 100 million seeds that had been on view in the giant exhibition in 2010, and that the remaining 92 million had been returned to him. “This portion of the installation may be one-tenth the size of the original, but it is still a lot bigger than [the one] Sotheby’s sold in London last year, […] composed of 100,000 seeds.”

Are we finally definitively in la-la land?

In 2007 it seems, Ai Weiwei did a piece called “Fairytale” in which he took 1,001 Chinese to Germany for the Documenta exhibition. According to a sympathetic reporter, “Ai’s intention was to offer them the ‘fairytale’ scenario of foreign travel, alongside a second fairytale for the citizens of Kassel: the experience of seeing and meeting Chinese people in their small town.”

Ai’s idea of a fairytale takes on tragic overtones in his own case. In November 2011, again in a lengthy story of three columns, the Times reported from Beijing that—as the headline proclaimed—China “seeks $2.4 million in taxes from dissident.” Ai had spent 81 days in jail for tax evasion, and was released when he agreed to reject interviews from new media and stay off Twitter. But, the Times reported, it did not take long for him to appear again with a “caustic essay in Newsweek.” Then, “he forwarded to his hundred thousand followers” an admonition: “In the battle between creating evil laws and creating good laws, speaking out is golden and silence is death.” In a curious paragraph in the Times story, the author says the crux of Ai’s defense rests on a simple legal precept: “Although he has been charged with tax evasion, he is not the legal owner of Beijing Fake Cultural Development, which fabricates much of his work. His wife, Lu Qing, is the owner.”


I confess that I am not up-to-date on Ai’s latest exploits, but he is probably cooking up new fairytales. The question is: Can he perform on his usual grand scale if, as it seems, capitalism is heading into one of its depressions? Without the heedless spending of the ’80s and ’90s, can a spectacular actor get his act together? Can he sow a million seeds of so-called dissidence in such a climate? Wasn’t he, after all, the darling of the nouveaux riches who made Wall Street killings in those golden years? Weren’t those balladiers of the Spanish Civil War on the mark when they sang:

Y como ser humano

El hombre lo que quiere es su pan

(“And just because he is human, what a man wants is his bread”—one of the ballads that I’m sure Bertolt Brecht stole from in his own ballads.)

I suspect that we are all living in Gertrude Stein’s place, where there is no there there.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

All Issues