Microscope: focusing on a single artwork
Ai Weiwei’s “Sculpture Installation,” 2006
Fuck you! Ai Weiwei’s arm stretches out, index finger extended. The marble self-portrait recalls Ai’s 1995-2003 photographic series “Study of Perspective,” wherein he photographed his own extended arm–and finger–in front of numerous and stereotypically prominent international buildings, whether the White House, the Eiffel Tower, or Tiananmen.
Perspective here refers both to the classical western system for delineating space and to a personal opinion in the sense of “a point of view.” One is a general, if distorting system, full up with its one-eyed omniscience, whereas the other is unique and subjective. Either way, the arm demonstrates how perspective is relative. Ai’s experiments with relative perspective also show how the individual is bigger, more important and ultimately independent of governmental power and its static symbols. The individual is always the active subject, whereas the monuments, towers and palaces are mere inanimate objects.
Note that the arm is amputated, not decapitated. The loss is corporal, not sentient. Like Gogol’s Nose, the arm maintains its independence, even absent its owner. In English, “arms” refer also to “armaments.” That finger and the stubborn and absurd defiance it indicates are at turns pathetic and bathetic. Ai’s work is thus at once a memorial to the use of arms/weapons and also their human cost. Accordingly the amputated arm can be seen as both “a call to arms,” a rallying cry, and also, playing on Hemingway, a farewell to arms.
“Sculpture Installation” is also an homage to one of the masters of performance art and of provocation too, as it is based on Bruce Nauman’s “From Hand to Mouth” of 1967, a cast of Nauman’s flaccid arm, hand, neck and mouth. “From Hand to Mouth” is about authority (the voice) and execution (the hand). As Amelia Warr notes:
“From Hand to Mouth” was made during a period of intense reflection on how to make art and what it is to be an artist. The sculpture is a literal physical representation of the title. Nauman links utterance to gesture, speech to manual activity. Cutting away the body to isolate a fragment, he has created a form that stands as a sculptural whole in itself, providing a new meaning out of an old cliché.
In Ai’s version, however, the axis is hand-ear, not hand-eye. The individual listens but does not speak, not verbally anyway. And it is marble, not wax moulded over a cloth frame like Nauman’s. Both are equally fragile, however, after their own art. The marble speaks though to classical sculpture and possibly contains a gentle reference to an ancient Greek concept: demos, meaning “the people” and kratia, “power and rule.” One could almost imagine it being grafted onto the Venus de Milo, just to help her out. Thus while Nauman takes the “hand to mouth” cliché back to its fundamentals, Ai returns them to allegory.
T. Warr (ed.) and A. Jones (survey), The Artist’s Body, London and New York: Phaidon, 2000, 164-5.