07/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ai Weiwei: Artist as Diffident Olympics Hero

The search is on for the unique encapsulation, the stroke that conveys China, the Olympics and change all in one go. It's a journalistic race to capture the weird, uncanny Olympics' contribution to the making and falsifying of China, finding the right formula of heroism, change, dynamism and, in a sense, deceit.

London's the Observer, in an essay by Rachel Cooke, has made a pretty interesting stab in this direction through an interview with Ai Weiwei, the artist who has a cultural imprint on the Olympic Stadium, (he is said to have "inspired" the "birds nest" motif as a part of the Herzog and de Meuron architectural team).

Part of the reason for the focus on Weiwei is what seems to be his diffidence. In the story of who goes and who doesn't to the opening ceremony, he says he will not. The super-famous artist tries to explain this diffidence saying he's done his job and has "no interest" in the Olympics and the propaganda around it.

This is a new kind of response, not exactly a boycott for ideological purposes, but rather an idea of having better things to do with life. This is a story about the symbolic significance of the Olympics where the hero refuses to participate in giving further symbolic significance to the Games (except for the irony of contributing to the aesthetics of China through the birds nest design for the Stadium).

Picking Weiwei to embody an attitude towards the new China is reinforced in a review of a show of his work in Australia by John McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald. McDonald dug up a money-shot Weiwei quote from Der Spiegel: "The games are a propaganda show, a giant masked ball...The outcome will be endless nonsense and boredom."

Weiwei is a great journalistic subject as well because there's a back story that's compelling (of course this is true for almost everyone): Ai Weiwei's, father, the poet Ai Qing, was banished to the countryside for two decades in the Hundred Flowers period of 1957, forbidden to write and forced to do manual labor of the most tedious sort. Weiwei, partly in reaction to this family history, left for the United States where he dramatically went from cleaning person to artist.

So, this is the beast found in the search for the journalistic capture: Weiwei is a cornucopia of the complexity of China, There's so much in Weiwei: great and famous artist ("the Warhol of China"), major contributor to the symbolism of the Olympics (the Olympic Stadium), indifference and non-participation, subject of the nation's myriad political changes.

London's the Observer has a spate of these "new narratives" of China in its July 6 issue, breathlessly celebrating the now common themes of China (Beijing and cars, Beijing and modern architecture, Beijing and dissidents, Beijing and the artist as hero).

Rachel Cooke's essay about Weiwei is part of a July 6 Beijing Special Issue Review of London's The Observer. The Review is a nice case study of the "new narratives" of China, with talented authors breathlessly celebrating the now common themes of defining and redefining Beijing as the emblem of the new power. In addition to Cooke, there's Isabel Hilton on the capitalist explosion ("First City of the Future"), Carole Cadwalladr with the inevitable essay on automobiles ("Top gear, please, and step on it") , and the also inevitable piece on Beijing and modern architecture, an abbreviated sampler of the musings of Deyan Sudjic ("The shape of things to come")