Ai WeiWei may be ‘the perfect Asian artist for lazy western curators’. He may also be the lazy marketer’s idea of viral cool, and the lazy politician’s idea of a progressive thinker. But for even the disaffected critic, WeiWei’s Law of the Journey at the National Gallery in Prague reveals failures of governance in the country’s critical apparatus.
On previous visits to Prague, I discovered the city’s contemporary art scene to be lively, engaged and alert, if not a little limited in breadth and diversity. Amongst the numerous art spaces and independent studios, the strong position of critics as public intellectuals is a positive legacy of Eastern block state cultures. I was therefore surprised to discover that a widely-publicised work commissioned by the National Gallery from Ai WeiWei has met with barely any critical response, despite its monumental scale and hallmarks of institutional corruption. The story’s end was framed for me by #byeweiwei, an event by curator Piotr Sikora for INI Project’s comparatively miniature space, who convened critics, art historians, and artists to interrogate the work, its universal unpopularity, and the silence.
Law of the Journey consisted of a 40-metre long black rubber inflatable boat, carrying an army of faceless black rubber figures, all hanging across the oversized exhibition hall of Veletrzni Palace. The work was further accompanied by an installation of clothes recovered from a refugee camp and a semi-documentary film produced there. WeiWei’s aim in enlargement and exaggeration trick might have been a close and personal encounter with its subject; unfortunately while the boat under which paying onlookers perambulate stretches long enough to inspire awe, it also abstracts from view the very human figures above. For its monumental size, the rubber dinghy at best trivialises its subject, and indicts the reality it portrays as predictable and therefore avoidable.
It could be this very syntactic distance is what WeiWei wanted to expose, deliberately fetishising the perils of intercontinental migration and playlisting them as mere ‘content’ in the way that mainstream news outlets do routinely, therefore uncomfortably forcing art audiences to acknowledge their own disenfranchised voyeurism. The work suggests otherwise: the ‘contextual’ part of the installation presents the migrants’ garments all cleaned and pressed, making it all too easy to remain on the surface of materiality.
The relevance of the project to its Czech audience is questionable too; had Law of the Journey acted out on compassion or guilt, it could have appeared pertinent in the landlocked Eastern-European country that has the unsurprising track record of indifference if not mild hostility towards the migration problems on Europe’s Southern borders. Indeed, it is reported that the education and engagement programme constructed around the work by the National Gallery was resoundingly successful, but given the rumoured budget of $1 million, even the best schools programme pales into insignificance.
This appraisal appeared close to the views of Prague’s critical community, though those were voiced mostly through predictable jokes, dismay, and gossip. Such inarticulations conceal troubling limits of agency for the critical voice within with the neoliberal political structures of cultural markets. In contrast with more ‘developed’ environments characterized by complicity, and evident relationships between actors (as for example in the alleged exchange of corporate goodwill and public funding between Frieze and Arts Council England, as in Morgan Quaintance’s recent recent article in e-flux conversations), Law of the Journey lacks an immediately-visible beneficiary: the presentation in a Prague institution hardly increased the market value of WeiWei’s work, the National Gallery will have been left with little but a spike in Instagram activity and a budget hole, and the Czech public received only a temporary absolution of their moral shortcomings as world citizens. Who benefits?
It could be that in commissioning the work, the National Gallery, a behemoth of an institution which boasts fourteen venues, was driven by a need for popular success in fear of competition from the many independent institutions and project spaces in Prague, and those translate into institutional currency of blockbusters, media attention, and the respect of other institutionally-liquid bodies.
Criticisms of the Gallery’s contemporary art programmes have abounded, and it is rumoured that the Gallery’s chief curator was not keen on the project but his opposition was overridden by the National Gallery’s director. Both are credited as curators of the project. Conspiracy theorists would suggest influence on the National Gallery’s programme by the pro-Chinese Czech government, and argue that WeiWei’s position as political dissident has become part of Beijing’s soft-power toolkit.
Either way, the issue is one of governance, in which artistic quality and political and commercial factors are not weighed appropriately. Peculiar to the cultural milieu of Eastern Europe is the use of the term NGO to describe a range of institutions, including even the smallest and most precarious of project spaces. Since the fall of the iron curtain, many countries have introduced legal templates for privately-held public-good institutions, and after decades of plan economies and state culture, curators and artists have been keen to assert their independence. The NGO structures differ significantly from the idea of a charitable organisation present in English-law systems, where independent boards govern, but do not profit from, the operation of the charity. The Eastern-European NGO can take many forms, but a common pattern brings together museums, art centres and projects spaces: they are managed by single individuals or small committees, and where boards exist, they are at best consultative and have no control over management. State or local government-owned museums are indeed government-owned (in contrast to, for example, the National Gallery in London, which is an independent trust, even if the majority of its funding comes directly from the national government), and directors often report directly to their political funders.
The space between Ai WeiWei and legal frameworks may seem vast, but I believe it is the source of Prague’s silence. While the National Gallery’s project may be criticized as expensive and artistically dubious, the art scene’s vocabulary of institutional critique has not developed beyond Palace intrigue, and this makes any systematic democratic scrutiny of such work impossible. To make matters worse, the limited legal controls on charitable activities have not seen the unbridled corporate interest in supporting the arts the legislators might have expected, and states remain the major funders of arts institutions, be it in a diminishing way. The visual arts community of Prague remains directly and indirectly funded by the Czech state, through conduits of a myriad of NGOs that receive funding from the same department as the National Gallery, and this pleases it in an unmanageable conflict of interest.
Characterised in this way, the critical dilemma is equivalent to a familiar moral one, and is solved only through a series of political decisions that may not seem to be of immediate interest to cultural activists. I believe, however, that this discussion about how basic decisions are made across the independent art sector is fundamental to answering questions on who such practice is for and why.