"In the face of the realities of Chinese culture as a whole, the greatest responsibility of China's intellectuals and artists is to exert every effort at any cost to help the people of China to shed the past and transform into a society of free and creative spirits. This will be the true measure of China's ‘modernization.'"
Those words, issued by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, might sound like a new rebuke to the officials who recently confined the Beijing artist for 80 days and then slapped him with gag order and a $1.87-million bill for back taxes and penalties. But in fact they were written over 25 years ago, as part of a brief manifesto for a group of displaced cultural figures called the Chinese United Overseas Artists, its membership scattered in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The declaration, typewritten in English and dated "New York, December 1985," was recently released by scholar and curator Joan Cohen, author of the pioneering survey The New Chinese Painting, 1949-1986 (Abrams, 1987), who unearthed the original two-page document in her files. On the evening of July 26, she read excerpts from the text while participating in a panel titled "China's Avant-Garde in the East Village" at the Asia Society in New York.
Viewers familiar with Ai's iconoclastic works of the late 1990s and early 2000s—ancient pots painted over with bright hues and Coca-Cola logos, weirdly reconfigured Qing dynasty furniture, a Han dynasty urn deliberately dropped and shattered—may see such gestures prefigured in the fifth of the manifesto's seven bullet points: "Freedom is the condition for creativity; only through creativity can we truly experience freedom. The creative spirit honors tradition by breaking with tradition. Only by continuously moving away from tradition can we cultivate tradition."
The panel, moderated by Asia Society museum director Melissa Chiu, was offered in conjunction with the exhibition "Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983–1993" [through Aug. 14], which contains 227 diaristic, black-and-white images chosen by the artist from an archive of some 10,000 negatives documenting his hand-to-mouth life as a bohemian exile in the U.S.
The pictures, seemingly compulsive in their quantity and their openness to minutia and random incident, reflect an extremely casual point-and-shoot approach consistent with Ai's chosen role as East Village flaneur. Subjects include derelicts, hipsters, transvestite Wigstock participants, celebrity politicians (Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton), Thompson Square Park protesters and, most memorably, figures who contributed to the artistic ferment of the era-Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, John Ahearn and musicologist Harry Smith, to name a few.
Ai's key function as a cross-cultural scout and crash-pad host is evident in the intimate portraits of Chinese visitors, many of whom went on to national and international prominence—among them, composer Tan Dun, poets Shu Ting and Bei Dao, musicians Hu Yongyan and Xu Weiling, filmmakers Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang. Fellow artists—Wang Keping, Xu Bing, Chen Yifei, Liu Xiaodong and others—turn up in abundance, despite the fact that Ai would not hesitate to photograph his friends in rumpled bedclothes or seated on the toilet. He even includes a snap of himself nude, in a kind of less-than-muscular David stance.
The show, panel and manifesto will all no doubt add to the Western heroicization of Ai. In one of today's most revealing East-West cultural divides, however, many art-world denizens in China (where Ai is often viewed as excessively privileged and self-promoting) still find such efforts as comically dubious as that copped Michelangelo pose.
Self Portrait, East 3rd St Apartment, 1986. Courtesy Asia Society.