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Weiwei-isms Hardcover – December 5, 2012
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Chinese artist and humanitarian activist Ai Weiwei works innovatively in a bold variety of modes and media, from video works to sculpture made from the fragments of ancient statues of Buddha to salvaged pieces of old, traditional houses destroyed by developers. He has published groundbreaking art books; the Internet has been essential to his art and contact with the global community; and he is as in command of language as he is of images and objects. This little book collects Ai’s aphorisms, or “Weiwei-isms,” distilled thoughts culled from Ai’s writings, interviews, and Twitter posts on freedom of expression, human rights, art and activism, power and the government, and moral choices. Embattled in a “war of words” with the Chinese government, as Warsh notes, Ai’s “skill in wielding the brief phrase as cultural statement has gained scholarly and critical admiration as an art form unto itself.” As brilliant and serious as Ai is, he is also companionable and uplifting: “Liberty is about our rights to question everything.” “My favorite word? It’s act.” “Art is not an end but a beginning.” --Donna Seaman
One of The Village Voice's Favorite Books for 2012
One of Big Think's Best Art Books of 2012
One of Huffington Post's Best Art Books for 2012, List of the 50 Greatest Creative Publications
"Warsh has collected statements from Weiwei on topics ranging from technology to Twitter, freedom of speech to the power of action, and creativity to morality. Although loosely divided into chapters, the book and its brief but powerful quotations all reference back to humanity and the rights of all its members. Unfailingly pithy and refreshingly modest, the book reads quickly and conversationally. Inspirational through its simplicity and generating feelings of complicity, Weiwei succeeds in creating obsessed readers and his desire for obsessed citizens, in China and the world at large, cannot be far behind."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[H]ere is a man who understands how to get messages to people. His expertise in artful dissemination is the 21st-century equivalent of Andy Warhol's brilliant populism. . . . [E]pigrammatic, pungent, uncompromising."--Peter Aspden, Financial Times
"Physically Weiwei-isms is a black, small hardbound book, fitting nicely into a jacket pocket and meant to be carried around, perused at chance moments and ruminated on. It knowingly bears a resemblance to the little red books that were given out by Chairman Mao in order to popularize his philosophies to his subjects. Yet, brainwashing is not the dastardly attempt of the author this time; it is more akin to brain-widening. Take a look for yourself. I feel safe in saying that some statement, one of his turns of phrase, will hit you like a punch in the gut, likely leaving an emotional bruise that will take great time and thought to recover from."--Luke Goldstein, Blogcritics
"If it's even possible to put a whole person into your pocket, Weiwei-isms comes close. . . . Unlike The Little Red Book, carrying Weiwei-isms isn't compulsory, but you'll find yourself compelled to read it again and again and fit it into your head and heart, if not your pocket."--Bob Duggan, Big Think
"For those who have been moved by his struggles with the Chinese authorities, who admire his art or dance along to his irreverent interpretation of Psy's 'Gangnam Style', taken up by artists and museums across the world on YouTube, Ai Weiwei's little book of sayings is for you."--Sarah Greenberg, Editor of RA Magazine
"This little book collects Ai's aphorisms, or 'Weiwei-isms,' distilled thoughts culled from Ai's writings, interviews, and Twitter posts on freedom of expression, human rights, art and activism, power and the government, and moral choices. . . . As brilliant and serious as Ai is, he is also companionable and uplifting."--Booklist
"Although this book, a collection of quotes from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is only four by five inches in dimension, it contains powerful and dangerous ideas. Powerful for general readers: 'Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught.' And dangerous to China's leaders: 'The people who control culture in China have no culture.' Chinese authorities have beaten and jailed Ai, destroyed his studio, and threatened his loved ones because he won't stop denouncing government oppression. Buy this book to keep his brave words alive, since, as he points out, 'The government computer has one button: delete.'"--R.C. Baker, Village Voice
"PERFECT FOR: Dissidents-in-training, Ai fans and anyone with a Twitter handle."--Huffington Post
"His quotations, collected from his own writings, interviews and Tweets, offer musings on art, politics and Chinese life. They also show us the man himself: uncompromising, upfront, amusing, and charismatic, with an often wicked sense of humour."--Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Independent
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I didn’t expect a publication that has been touted as one of the “Best Art Books of 2012″ to stand just six inches tall and contain only two photographs. But as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new book Weiwei-isms proves, small can be powerful.
This slim, pocket-sized volume compiles quotes made by Ai in interviews, in newspaper articles, on his blog, and via Twitter. “Chairman Mao was the first in the world to use Twitter,” says Ai. “All his quotations are within 140 words.” Weiwei-isms, published by Princeton University Press and designed by Pamela Schnitter with art direction by Maria Lindenfeldar, is brilliantly executed, and the high-quality paper and sewn binding are a pleasure to leaf through.
Ai’s reference to Mao is important, for his book cleverly satirizes the Chairman’s infamous book of quotations, ironically referred to as the Little Red Book in the West.
It is uncommon for a visual artist to privilege words over images, but that is precisely what Ai has done again and again over the course of his career. In a culture where free-speech is suppressed, direct discourse has exceptional value—a value that Western society has largely forgotten in this age of political hyperbole, Internet blather, and ad speak.
It is one thing to create art that skirts government censors through subtlety and ambiguity (as artists have done in repressed societies for centuries), and quite another to wear your politics on your sleeve (or your Twitter feed, in this case). As Ai discovered, such boldness can quickly get you thrown into prison, or worse.
For Ai, “this struggle is a ‘war of words,’” says editor Larry Warsh in his introduction to Weiwei-isms, ”and his own words—spoken, written, or tweeted—are ‘like a bullet out of the gun,’” “Ai Weiwei repeatedly points out, and centuries of history attest, human rights and freedom of expression are not set by anyone’s agenda. They are inalienable rights, central to what makes us human.”
Both Ai’s Twitter feed and censored blog (which I have written about before) are works of art in their own right. And as Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes in the Independent, “Ai is not only a master of generating self-publicity online but also of the short, sweet quote. At his best he can use Twitter in a way that a Japanese poet might use a haiku: harnessing the compactness of the form to his advantage. ‘During the days in detention, I thought most about the moon,’ posted Ai in 2011. Such pared-down lyricism makes his language a pleasure to read.” After all, this is the land of Confucius and Lao Tzu.
One of the things I value most about Ai’s work is that he doesn’t limit himself to one particular medium. “Everything is art,” Ai says. “Everything is politics.”
Ai lives his art, as seen in Alison Klayman’s recent documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. After Ai is beaten by police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow earthquake investigator, he is diagnosed with a cerebral hemorage and must undergo emergency brain surgery.
Ai photographs his hospital experience and later, he and his assistants methodically go from police station to police station filing complaints about the attack, but getting nowhere. The act of confronting Chinese bureaucracy and injustice directly and documenting the result is the kind of art Franz Kafka could appreciate.
“I want to prove that the system is not working,” argues Ai. “You can’t simply say that the system is not working. You have to work through it.”
Weiwei-isms is organized into six themes: Freedom of Expression; Art and Activism; Government, Power, and Making Moral Choices; Digital World; History, Historical Moment, and the Future; and Personal Reflections. The little black book is a direct snub to the Chinese government and represents everything Mao’s Little Red Book does not: individuality, social change, the basic human right of freedom speech. This is a big burden for a tiny 120-page book to carry, and yet it does the job remarkably well.
The mere act of compiling Ai’s statements into a book that mocks Mao’s legacy is a radical gesture. And I would go so far as to say that the act of purchasing and sharing this book is a small show of support for human rights. Of course, Chinese citizens are the ones who would benefit most from Weiwei-isms, and they will not have easy access to this publication—an injustice we would do well to keep in mind.
In the West we have become indifferent to free speech. We have forgotten that words have the power to change minds and incite action. But totalitarian governments and religious fundamentalists know better. They ban books and censor not because they are crazy or ignorant, but because they comprehend reality: the ability to speak our own truth is the most potent and human act of all.