Monday, 2 May 2011

On Ai Weiwei

When an artist dies, their work changes forever. Whatever it was they were doing at the time of their demise becomes loaded with retroactive meaning and spurious clairvoyance. With the exception of works knowingly produced in the inverted shadow of suicide – Rothko’s hyper-bleak late-60s moonscapes, almost anything on In Utero – most “late works” (in Edward Said’s famous designation) aren’t made with the intention of providing a tragic coda to a life lived publicly, but can’t help but acquire new meaning by virtue of their proximity to death. Painting especially does this: looking at Titian’s astounding Pieta, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1575 and completed by an assistant, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by the thought of the artist’s plague-crabbed fingers dragging pigment across the corpse of Christ. Even Duchamp’s Etant Donnes, designed in secret while the artist had nominally quit art to concentrate on chess, manages to acquire a funereal resonance in its evocation of a tomb (perhaps even The Tomb). David Foster Wallace’s recently published posthumous novel The Pale King will, as I write, be being scoured for allusions to his 2008 suicide, as though his life were lived backwards. In effect, all these efforts are part of the perennial human project to find meaning and pattern in the messy, unmanageable stuff of human existence.

Read the complete piece at Art21 here.

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