Ai Weiwei's Becoming is both a homage and critique of China's rapid development, a development that has often come at the expense of the nation's own people.
When Ai Weiwei was studying at Parson's School of Design in New York having vowed to never return to China, his teacher, the artist Sean Scully, told him his drawings had "no heart". In response Ai Weiwei put down his pen and dropped out. Aimless in New York, Ai Weiwei would visit practically every gallery show and take various odd jobs. His "life had no goal, no purpose." It is extraordinary to think how far Ai Weiwei has come, that he is now undeniably one of the most high-profile artists working today. That his relentless attacks against the Chinese authorities have made him into one of the most notorious, brazen, and respected artists in the world.
Ai Weiwei's book Becoming, 2009 provides a photographic journey of the construction of Beijing’s airport terminal in the form of a traditional Chinese photo album. Made between 2005 and 2008, the work catches the artist in a transformative phase, as he shifts from an occasional collaborator with the Chinese State to its most vocal critic. The turning point can be dated to 2008 after an earthquake hit China's Sichuan Province. The death toll exceeded 69,000 people and it became clear children's schools had been adversely affected. Through the siphoning off of funds, official corruption had contributed to over 7,000 poorly constructed schools collapsing—the so-called "tofu-dreg" schools.
After the Sichuan Earthquake the authorities pressured and harassed bereaved parents in an attempt to suppress the truth. Incensed by the authority's refusal to take responsibility for the earthquake, Ai Weiwei financed a citizen investigation to reveal what really happened and disseminated images of the disaster on Twitter. In response the Chinese tapped his phone and began a 24-hour surveillance which would ultimately lead to his arrest and the start of an irreconcilable relationship with the land of his birth.
Becoming harks back to far less toxic times, when the artist was still convinced that the "internet and globalization" had the power to change China. Including interviews with Norman Foster, the architect behind the new terminal, Beijing's latest airport is a wonder of human engineering with the potential to accommodate 50 million passengers a year. What is more astonishing (cover your eyes BER), is the fact that the whole project was completed in just four years. With upwards of 50,000 construction workers on site at any one time, Ai Weiwei's images are extraordinary for their lack of human presence. It could be that Ai Weiwei is alluding to his belief that the Chinese State is making "a society without citizens." Because what is an airport if not a connection between peoples, countries, and cultures? The artist is questioning the symbolic new gateway to China’s expansionist ideals, made all the more significant following decades of self-imposed international isolation. Although majestic in scope, Ai Weiwei's photos of an empty airport become a melancholic monument to the communist government’s international ambitions.
The limited edition is given further potency with Ai Weiwei's choice of a traditional Chinese photo album. Such a format gives the work a sense of intimacy, a resonance to the relationship between the viewer and the new airport—but the empty photos only emphasize a disjuncture between them. Often the pursuit of progress and expansion has been at the expense of the inhabitants who have had to make way for the new developments. Despite this there is a sense of the artist's excitement for the monumental project he is observing, the type of grand undertaking on which Norman Foster has built his reputation.
Ai Weiwei and Foster are closely linked by their lifelong commitment to craftsmanship and the fine attention to detail that gives their works a hidden level of depth. Becoming is beautifully made in an edition of just 45. The limited edition's cover is made out of cotton fabric and the book comes in a box with two locks of 99.9 silver. Each of his one hundred and forty-seven photographs in Becoming is numbered and dated in engraved lettering on the passe-partout. A meticulous documentation of the construction of China's great new airport, but also a record of the artist’s unquenchable investigations into the political, social, and psychological motives behind the actions of man.
By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor