People power: It's the taking part that counts

The jailed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is part of a new cultural movement that's using people power to challenge society's vested interests

On 12 May 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale shook the Chinese province of Sichuan. Among the dead were thousands of children whose schools – shoddily built as a result of corruption – collapsed around them. Despite widespread anger and grief, government officials refused to investigate the disaster fully.

That was when the artist Ai Weiwei stepped in to launch his own inquiry, organising 200 volunteers to go door to door, talk to bereaved parents and record details of their deceased children online. "Everybody knew something was wrong, but nobody knew any facts or looked carefully to find the names of the children who died, which school they were in, at what level, how old they were, female or male," said the artist, whose volunteers eventually uncovered the names of over 5,000 pupils. "Whatever we found out, we posted on the blog. That caused a revolution in the minds of the people."

In the outcry surrounding his arrest by the Chinese government last month, it's sometimes hard to make out exactly what kind of artist Ai Weiwei is and why his work is so lauded by supporters and treated with such suspicion by Chinese authorities. We know him as a trenchant critic of the Chinese state. And we have seen the Sunflower Seeds, albeit from behind a barrier. But we're unsure about the connection between the two. Especially because the commonly applied description of him as an artist and activist suggests his artworks and his politics run on parallel tracks.

Yet the key to the kind of artist he is – and what makes him such an incendiary figure to his government – is the fact that, for all practical purposes, there is no distinction between his personal life, his art and his political principles. An exercise like the Sichuan campaign is, for him, as much of an artwork as any of the more formal experiments in photography, sculpture or architecture he has carried out over the years. As, come to that, is his prolific use of Twitter – he has over 80,000 followers and, pre-arrest, would sometimes post comments dozens of times in a day – and the films of his everyday life he uploads to his YouTube channel.

What's common to all these activities is his desire to reach beyond the cloistered environment of a gallery or a museum and connect with ordinary people about real social issues. And a belief that, in doing so, art can trigger political awareness. Referring to the work of Marcel Duchamp, who famously bestowed the status of art on commonplace objects like a bicycle wheel and a urinal, Ai has talked of subjecting the repressive environment in China to the same process of artistic transformation. "I take the political situation in China as a ready-made. I transform it in my own way to show people the possibilities of this reality and a way to change. That, I think, is directly related to my art; it's the same thing to me."

Ai Weiwei is not alone in the conviction that artistic projects carried out in public with the participation of ordinary people can trigger meaningful change in society. Across the course of the past decade a growing number of artists have eschewed the physical business of painting or sculpture in favour of working with the public to create moments and experiences of heightened social or political awareness. They include significant British figures like Jeremy Deller and, with his Fourth Plinth project for Trafalgar Square, Antony Gormley. And respected international names like Francis Alÿs, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller, and of course Ai Weiwei himself. The result has been ambitious, strikingly imaginative artworks that have corralled hundreds, even thousands, into action while asking sometimes searching questions about the state of culture and society.

Well-known projects include Deller's The Battle of Orgreave, a restaging of a pitched conflict between miners and police at the height of the miners strike in 1984, played out 17 years later with members of English civil war reenactment societies. For Francis Alÿs's epic When Faith Moves Mountains, the Belgian artist recruited 500 Peruvian volunteers to shovel a gigantic sand dune on the outskirts of Lima, shifting its position an almost imperceptible four inches, in a commentary on the halting progress of Latin American government and civil society. And, invited to take part in the prestigious Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany in 2007, Ai Weiwei arranged for 1001 volunteers from across China, none of whom had ever left the country before, to visit the town and wander freely for eight days. Ostensibly a mass excursion, the trip took on a more pointed resonance when read in the context of questions of migration, globalisation, the use of labour and the role of the individual in China.

In addition, there are a considerable number of socially engaged works by less high-profile artists. Among these are the all-day disco-dance marathon for teenagers in Ramallah staged by Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins; Polish artist Pawel Althamer's relationship with a group of adults with mental and physical disabilities in Warsaw, who have been both the subject of his work as well as his collaborators; and the floating abortion clinic designed by Dutch group Atelier Van Lieshout that is operational in international waters.

Diverse as these projects are, they share a number of common features. They are staged outside a gallery. They are hard to classify: are they performances, durational works, popular spectacle? And they are reliant for their success on the enthusiasm and involvement of the public to bring an artist's ideas to life.

The emergence of this participatory art movement has attracted major attention in the art world. It was the subject of a group show, The Art of Participation, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2008. Next year's flagship commission in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall will feature the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, who creates what he calls "constructed situations" between performers and ordinary people. And the influential critic Claire Bishop has said of leading lights such as Deller and Höller that "their work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialised, anti-market, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life."

If this is a new avant-garde then it's operating on a different set of aesthetic rules to previous generations of political art. Typically, artists have wanted us to be as outraged as they are in the face of war or great injustice. Their pictures – angry, provocative, shocking – reflect this. Think of Picasso's Guernica; the shrieking heads and spewing blood in the imagery of feminist artist Nancy Spero; Richard Hamilton's Bobby Sands, naked beneath a blanket in his befouled cell at the height of the dirty protests.

By contrast the likes of Deller and Alÿs prefer dialogue to polemic. Rather than conjuring visceral imagery or bludgeoning slogans they wield art as a form of "soft power": a means to bring people together, to stir emotions and nudge participants towards a new understanding of the social and political order.

The rising prominence of their work also sits in contrast to the glitziness of the pre-financial crash art market, when top sellers like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons were being snapped up by an international moneyed elite, eager for trophies that affirmed their wealth, not critiqued it.

The irony is that, if ever there was a time for art to challenge and provoke it should have been during the past decade. September 11, the War on Terror, yawning inequalities between rich and poor and North and South, the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks – these have been troubled years. Yet you wouldn't have known it from wandering through most galleries, where the accent was firmly on commerce not conscience.

But in its attempts to more deeply consider the condition of society, participatory art raises questions of its own. Are participatory projects really classifiable as art or are they closer to a form of applied social work? And, if we accept them as the former, is it anyway possible for art to effect the kinds of transformation purported? Is it possible for art to change the world?

Champions of the genre, like the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, describe the virtues of the movement in utopian terms, as an opportunity to create occasions when people can meet, establish bonds of trust and cooperation and to, as a consequence, begin looking at the world with new eyes. As he puts it, this is art as "a state of encounter".

That rings true with regard to Deller's recent road trip across America towing a bombed-out car from Baghdad. Pitched up in town squares, the car's presence triggered heartfelt conversations among local people about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war and America's place in the world, post 9/11.

But the outcome of such encounters is perhaps less certain with a figure like the New York-based Rirkrit Tiravanija, who's chiefly known for staging exhibitions that consist of him cooking Thai food for gallery-goers.

Maybe the question to ask then isn't if participatory art can change the world, but whether it succeeds in transforming our perception of the world and our place within it. The current, uncertain fate of Ai Weiwei highlights the heavy personal cost that can result from merging art and politics in this way. The artist's words, speaking about his Sichuan campaign, make clear what the worth of doing so might be. "This investigation will be remembered for generations as the first civil rights activity in China. It directly affects people's feelings and their living conditions, their freedom and how they look at the world. To me, that is art."

Ekow Eshun was the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 2005 to 2010

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own