Ai Weiwei: Semantics of the Medium

A contradiction arises in seeing Ai Weiwei’s Fondation (2012) and 258 Fake (2011) together, and now. But this need not be taken strictly as a criticism: we are living in contradictory times. Fondation, previously exhibited at the Louvre and as part of a group exhibition at Baalbek archaeological site in Lebanon, is close to a Duchampian ready-made. It consists of the bases of stone columns taken from the foundations of centuries-old Chinese halls and arranged into a grid protruding from a wooden platform.

The piece is intended to recall the Greek agora – a gathering place and center of an ancient city-state’s artistic, athletic, and political life, literally translated as “open space.” Fulfilling this function, it will play host to a performative discussion involving artists, activists and curators, which is to be live streamed on 8 December. In inviting visitors to step up to the platform and sit on these pillars, Weiwei addresses our agoraphobia, coaxing us from the critical safety of the space reserved for observers and into the open, demanding our engagement.

As is the case with both pieces here, Foundation is a reference to Weiwei’s relationship with social media; if we consider it as such, with each pillar a node in a network, and visitors actively invited to occupy these nodes, there are implications for the kind of edifice such a foundation allows.

The use of stone taken from buildings with a grounding in history suggests a solidity to the discursive structure social media allows, and yet the pillars are essentially ruins. The participants occupying these nodes have no permanence either, and may be replaced or absent entirely – conflicts, echo chambers, and voids are all possible hazards.

The artist is an advocate of social media and has struggled to protect his use of it, but this work reveals a foundational flaw in its efficacy as a political tool, one which is especially poignant given current concerns around social media and electoral politics: the medium modifies the message.

The second of the two pieces, 258 Fake (2011), shares its name with the adopted address of Weiwei’s studio in Beijing and consists of 12 monitors displaying a slideshow of 7,677 photographs. These images are taken mostly from the artist’s blog, which was infamously shut down by the Chinese authorities in 2009, and they change at staggered intervals of three seconds.

Here, too, the medium modifies the message. The images are configured and reconfigured to create practically infinite semiotic sequences, each of which composes a new discourse: one screen may conjure a cat to stare hungrily at the plate of fish on a neighbouring screen before exchanging it for an indifferent spider; elegant architectural geometry may align with the disordered rubble of a building site; light sources, colours, and compositional elements settle briefly in complementary and contrasting patterns. Ultimately, no discourse or meaning is stable.

As well as images from the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, there are photos of the artist at both work and play in his studio and at social events; counter intuitively, such images do well to temper the lack of balance between subject and artist that sometimes arises.

He has been widely, and rightly, criticised for gestures such as having socialites take selfies in refugee jackets, or recreating the internationally recognisable photograph of Alan Kurdi – the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach near Bodrum – with himself cast as the drowned child.

Seeing the artist joking in a novelty wig or thinking through a problem in his work dispels the almost messianic persona of the artist-dissident cultivated in certain media, and returns the sense of gravity to the political subjects his fame risks overshadowing.

The contradiction in these two pieces is that they are intended, ostensibly, as a metaphor for the artist’s use of social media, and yet provide ample critique of it. Both Foundation and 258 Fake – the etymology of whose namesake is the subject of wide speculation – replicate social media’s epistemological potential while simultaneously replicating its shortcomings.

Intentionality in art is a tricky thing to decipher, whether the cracks in Weiwei’s preferred mode of reaching an audience are highlighted deliberately or not, they could not be so if these pieces failed to capture at least something of the essence of their subject, and this in itself is valuable.

Ned Carter Miles

Ai Weiwei: Foundation is at Lisson Gallery, London, until 7 January. Find out more:

1. Ai Weiwei 258 Fake, (2011) Digital files. © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy Lisson Gallery