Art and the Political Message: Ai Weiwei and Peter Kennard

by Ann Jones

Ai Weiwei's ‘Surveillance Camera’ installed at the Lisson Gallery; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s banner outside neugerriemschneider in Berlin.

In the film that accompanied his Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, Ai Weiwei says that he wants “people who don’t understand art to understand what I am doing”. In his recent book @earth, Peter Kennard has attempted communication that is purely visual: barring the title, the book – including both index and contents page – is without words; attempting to find a more universal visual language and create a book that needs no translation. Seeing these two things in fairly quick succession made me start to think about the degree to which art relies on verbal language – be it a title or a longer explanatory text – to help get the message across. Is visual language alone ever enough, and to what extent is it culturally specific?

Ai Weiwei and Peter Kennard can both be described as political artists – albeit in different ways and with a different approach to both making and showing art, as we’ll see – and in politics getting the message across matters enormously, so how do they do it and how to we read what they put in front of us? Responding to the aesthetics of a work, or the experience of seeing/interacting with it isn’t necessarily enough if the aim of the artist is to make a political point. Ai’s Sunflower Seeds were intended as a multi-sensory installation. The visitor might walk or lie on the seeds, hear them crunch beneath the feet, pick up a handful of seeds to feel them and even, Ai suggested, put one between their teeth to be sure they weren’t real. During those heady few days when the installation first opened and the audience was given full access to it, people used the installation almost as a beach, making small piles of seeds, partially burying one another and simply sitting or lying on them to chat. Until the seeds were declared out of bounds, the installation looked set to create the kind of social space that rarely exists in a museum, but which also characterised Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installed in the same space in 2003. Without watching the film or reading about the work though how many of those who visited the piece would have understood Ai’s intentions? In talking about the piece, Ai refers to the Cultural revolution and the posters of the period that represent Mao Zedong as the sun, surrounded by sunflowers signifying loyal party members; without the contextualisation of the film, such specific references would be missed by the vast majority of visitors. While this wouldn’t stand in the way of people’s enjoyment of the work it would limit their understanding of it. Roped off, the sunflower seeds became a space to be observed and contemplated; the scale of the space and the way the seeds occupied it became the focus, drawing attention to the unimaginable scale of the work: a combination of the handmade and the production line in the form of a hundred million individually painted porcelain seeds. And, as the end of the work’s stay in the Turbine Hall edged closer, the emptiness of the space acquired an unwanted poignancy when Ai was detained by the Chinese authorities.

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds (2010) at Tate Modern

The work in Ai Weiwei’s current exhibition at the Lisson Gallery includes works that communicate directly with their audience, needing little or no contextualisation – perhaps most particularly Surveillance Camera (2010), a marble CCTV camera looking out from the upper gallery at 52-54 Bell Street – as well as ones that benefit from an informed audience – for instance Coloured Vases (2010; Han Dynasty vases covered in industrial paint). Obviously the knowledge required to appreciate the significance of the work is easily acquired by reading information available in the gallery but nonetheless this is work that benefits from taking the time to contemplate both the work and the accompanying text. At first glance, the pots are simple, almost roughly made but as one realises both the ancient nature of the vessels themselves and that their crude colouring is the result of a deliberate act of what could be seen as vandalism by the artist one can’t help but view them differently. The vases cease to be objects that challenge notions of beauty and ugliness or authorship and authenticity and become instead a metaphor both for the Cultural Revolution and for China’s continued destruction of its heritage as it rushes to build anew. the materials used in some of Ai’s other works are salvaged from some of the ancient buildings being destroyed by the ongoing modernisation of Beijing.

Coloured Vases (2010) by Ai Weiwei

In one sense, and making his actual absence more keenly felt, Ai seems to be everywhere this summer. With the Tate installation barely over (and with plans afoot to reuse some of the seeds for a new work elsewhere in Tate Modern), his exhibition at the Lisson Gallery started and hot on its heels his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads went on show in the courtyard of Somerset House, the first contemporary work to be shown in that space. Another version of this work is on display outside the Plaza Hotel in New York and the piece is set to travel extensively internationally. He also has a gallery show in Berlin. The Zodiac Heads sit comfortably at Somerset House; the piece recreates the statues that once stood outside Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace in Beijing destroyed by British and French troops 150 years ago during the Second Opium War, built, like Somerset House in the late eighteenth century. It may invite visitors to question the destruction that sealed the fate of the original artefacts or, as was more obviously in evidence during my visit, it may entice them to pose for pictures with their own zodiac animal and in a small way treat the work as the social space the Sunflower Seeds was designed not to become.

Ai’s work fits well into an art world centred on Europe and America and the constant rounds of art fairs and biennales; though we need translation to appreciate the nuances and understand the references to Chinese history and culture, Ai’s artistic influences and his way of working seem to stem in no small measure from his years as a resident of New York and the understanding of modernism he gained there and the effect it had on his thinking.

From @earth (2011), Peter Kennard assisted by Tarel Salhany

So is it possible to have an art that functions in any language? Kennard’s attempt in @earth, which brings together recent – digital – works with paintings and the photomontages for which he is best know, certainly communicates very directly through a visual language aimed at getting the message across with real urgency. Whereas Ai introduces ancient ceramics to industrial paint to create new vessels whose meaning must be worked at and carefully considered, Kennard juxtaposes images to provide new meanings with real immediacy. The resulting images are deliberately obvious; for the meaning to be almost instantly transmissible the connections made must be simple and straightforward. This is art that asks you to think about the issues but doesn’t make you work to figure out what they are. Even if it were provided – and the book offers no verbal explanations beyond the translation of the title into about forty languages on the back cover – there is no need to read about these images to get the point. So is it just the specifically Chinese references in Ai’s work that need translation? After all, without subtitles London audiences watching, say, a Zhang Yimou film would get nowhere much beyond an appreciation of the beauty of the image making. Why expect art to be in any way different?

Though we tend to expect visual art to function on a more universal level than other art forms (films and books for instance have a target audience in terms of age, art museums are expected to attract – and be relevant for – audiences of all ages) it would be easy to draw the conclusion that it is the culturally specific aspects of Ai’s work that need translation and that this is therefore the reason why our understanding of the work benefits from some level of contextualisation. Or perhaps the difference lies in the nature of the societies in which the two men work? Ai’s art is made in China where his belief that making art is inextricably connected with freedom of speech and individual expression sets him at odds with the regime; Kennard works in London, in a Western democracy in which – most of the time – freedom of speech is seen as a right. Furthermore, Kennard has always defined himself as a political artist whereas perhaps one might see Ai as an artist who is also political; speaking at Tate Modern in the autumn of 2010, Ai said he doesn’t define himself as a radical but said that in China if you have a different opinion or choose a different form of expression you are seen as a radical whereas in the West to do so is normal. Though political issues are brought to the fore by Ai’s work, it is his words – his blogging and tweeting about his life, his work and his thoughts on his homeland – that pose the most direct challenge to the powers that be in China. Perhaps then the difference here is between a political artist and an artist who is also political.

It seems to me though that there is another cultural difference that plays a significant role here, one that separates different aspects of the art world and the different contexts in which Ai and Kennard work. In London, Ai is represented by the Lisson Gallery which has long provided a platform for some of the world’s leading artists, particularly those with conceptual or minimalist practices; as well as Ai, the Lisson represents Marina Abramovic, Dan Graham, Anish Kapoor, Sol Lewitt, Tony Oursler and many others. Like most commercial contemporary art galleries, the Lisson is a clean white cube space, unlike all but a handful of big name galleries though, its spaces, particularly in the Tony Fretton designed building at 52-54 Bell Street, are able to accommodate museum-scale sculptural works. It is a world in which art is a big money commodity; available to be seen by all but to be bought only by museums and serious collectors. Though he also has a London gallery – Gimpel Fils, even longer established than the Lisson – Kennard’s practice has primarily been played out with more immediacy than is possible working towards a gallery show every couple of years. Kennard’s aim has always been to get the work out as quickly and directly as possible so that it will reach as many people as possible; his photomontages have been widely published in newspapers and magazines – for a long time his work regularly appeared on the op ed page of The Guardian, for instance – and used as banners and adverts by organisations like CND and the show that accompanied the Mayday launch of @earth was at Raven Row, a non-profit space albeit one of the most beautiful gallery spaces in London.

Posters outside Lisson Gallery, London, 2011

Regardless of the different ways in which Ai and Kennard work and the different ways in which we might encounter their work, the two share a common aim of affecting social change through art. Ai’s detention and the destruction of his studio earlier this year suggests that the Chinese authorities were becoming increasingly anxious about his voice on the international stage and seek to silence him. The timing couldn’t have been more counterproductive. Internationally, the galleries that represent Ai are vocally supporting him; the Lisson gallery for instance has a banner draped down the front of one of its buildings and the garden wall of the other is flyposted with posters – available free in the gallery – bearing Ai’s words. Ai’s Berlin gallery, neugerriemschneider, commissioned artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to make the ‘Where is Ai Wei Wei’ banner that adorns its building. And, of course, the exhibitions already planned have gone ahead and garnered higher levels of publicity than might otherwise have been expected. In terms of the international art world then it will take more than detention to stop silence Ai Weiwei. Ironically though, in London, if not his voice then Ai’s work has been silenced – quite literally by the roping off of Sunflowers Seeds, a loud and sociable work for the first days of its display – not by censorship but by that old favourite: health and safety concerns.

Ai Weiwei’s work is at the Lisson Gallery, 52-54 and 29 Bell Street, London NW1 5DA until 16 July. His ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ is in the courtyard of Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA until 26 June.

 Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese authorities on 3 April 2011. Such news as there is on his whereabouts can be found at A petition calling for his release, started by the Guggenheim Museum, can be found here:


Peter Kennard’s book ‘@earth’ is published by Tate Publishing.

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About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at and occasionally contributes to – writing about art, mostly.

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