Ai Weiwei & Marcel Duchamp - Debate Within the Art World

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Artists’ intentions are shaped by context, materials, ideas and audience. Discuss this statement with consideration of how audience interpretations of artworks have caused debate in the art world.

An artwork is often an artist’s subjective expression of their context. The ideology of artists, their perceptions of their contexts and the materials available to them play a significant role in the creation of their artworks. However, an artist’s intentions can be misinterpreted or disregarded by their audience, often sparking fervent discussion within the art world. Through the artists Ai Weiwei and Marcel Duchamp, we can clearly see how personal reactions to an environment shape the intent of artworks. Additionally, from their audiences’ inability to see past the face value of their work to its complex connotations, one can clearly witness the various misinterpretations of art and the resulting debate.

Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist who works actively in sculpture, installation, architecture, photography, film, and uses these as a medium though which to portray his social and political criticisms. Born in May 1957 in Beijing, Weiwei grew up during a time when the art scene consisted exclusively of government approved paintings and styles. It took a decade of liberty in New York for him to begin to explore his own radical practice, which now involves many different mediums. The artist’s intentions are clear; his works attempt to expose political mayhem and the struggle of the Chinese people for human rights. Weiwei aims to spark debate because he believes it results in change. Although questioning of government policy is extremely detrimental to ones freedom in China, Weiwei attempts to use his art and iconic position to remove China of its corrupt political culture. His human rights views and aims are outlined in his statement; “If we don’t speak out, we are part of it”. During an interview, Weiwei stated, “Marcel Duchamp influenced me in a way to be aware of the mental condition, art is an effort of attitude.” Duchamp’s influence is reflected through the ideological undertones of Weiwei’s work and the way he delicately examines the complex intersection between artistic practice and social activism. He creates artworks that are explicitly political while still realising artistic value in his execution. Not only does he have unique courage, unwavering determination and clear objectives, but Weiwei’s work is also remarkably poetic and human, allowing it to appeal to a wide audience despite its political message. The unstable political state in Weiwei’s context means he rarely has the opportunity to exhibit his work in China. In Weiwei’s view, the country is unable to truly understand culture, art, and the value of creativity. Weiwei made a personal effort to expose the government after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake with an investigation of student casualties. Appalled by the efforts of Chinese officials to conceal the high casualties, he searched for and documented each of the 5385 children in the Tofu schools who’s lives were taken as a result of poor infrastructure. Weiwei published the list on his blog, which was then shut down by Chinese authorities in 2009. Despite this, his efforts were validated by an installation work of the students backpacks titled “Remembering” (2010) exhibited at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich. Weiwei was arrested for his criticism of the government’s social injustice. However, to shield this issue from public debate, his detainment was said to be concerning ‘economic crimes’. Many were appalled at the actions taken against his freedom and thus an international debate was sparked. Weiwei was able to fulfill his intentions to reveal the injustices of the Chinese Government through his strong engagement with his audience and the debate he caused in the realms of politics and art.

The installation “Sunflower Seeds” (2010) exhibits Weiwei’s fearless campaign for human rights and freedom...
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