Great webdesign is not about full-screen backgrounds and advanced animations. This post discusses why the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s bare-bone website represents one of the most progressive webdesigns published in recent years.
Ai Weiwei (1957) is an artist, designer and activist. While he in the west is praised in superlatives and referenced to as “the most important artist alive today” (Sooke, 2017; Higgins, 2017); in China, the government-controlled press speaks about him in less amicable terms and often addresses him as “the most dangerous man in China (Smithsonian, 2017).
Through his words, art, and design, Weiwei is an unrelenting critique of the totalitarian regime of his country which has cost him time in jail and a to become a target for state-sponsored harassment. Even so; he continues to fight for a just society and to bring injustices and abuse of his government into the light. One example is his publication of the names of all the 5.000 students who died during the 2009 Sichuan earthquake as of collapsing school buildings; a consequence of state officials whom instead of following engineering standards, had used insufficient building materials and put the money saved in their own pockets (Artasiapacific.com, 2017; TIME.com, 2017).
Weiwei is not the only member of his family who has challenged the Chinese leadership. His father Ai Qing (1910) who is one of Chinas’ most renowned poets, in 1959, was forced to move his family from Beijing to the northeastern province of Heilongjiang (Ai and Ambrozy, 2011, p.245) after being accused as a rightist, from which they were not allowed to return until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 (M. Cunningham, 2017).
In 1978, Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy but soon found his call in the art. To escape the repressing barriers preventing Chinese artists to express their voices, he in 1981 escaped to New York where he enrolled at the ‘Parsons School of Design’ and where he soon becoming a visible figure in the fertile subculture of the city’s artists and bohemians (The Culturist, 2016).
After making a living from photography and street portraits, Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1993 where he became deeply influenced by the legacies of Duchamp and Beuys, and his early work from this period is dominated by conceptual pieces and “ready-mades.”
Much of Weiweis’ art is devised in the vein of Warhol, maybe most visible in his Coca-Cola Vase (Fig 1, above); a two-thousand-year-old vase festooned with the most recognized emblem of American capitalism; the Coca Cola logotype. The year after making this provocative statement, Weiwei also created his maybe most iconoclastic and provocative work—‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (Fig 2, below)—a photographic triptych where he smashes a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty Urn which created an outrage among historians and the Chinese regime (Jones, 2017). Weiwei, on his hand, rationalized his action by saying that “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one;” referring to the atrocities and widespread destructions of antiquities during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
Weiwei’s maybe most powerful expression, though, can be seen in ‘Straight, 2008–12’ (Fig 2, below). This art-work is a statement about the governmental negligence and corruption leading to the 5.000 children killed when poorly constructed schools collapsing during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. This 40 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 20 tonnes art-work is constructed by broken steel reinforcement bars from some of the badly built schools that collapsed during the earthquake which marked the beginning of an adversarial relationship to the Chinese leadership which have come to shape much of Weiwei’s expression (The Art Story, 2017).
A brilliant example of truly progressive web-design.
With the homepage composed of only a white centred box on a grey background with his name at the top; his most current work published as a vertical list; and with content sections represented by a simple headline, a short introduction paragraph and an image; the design of Weiwei’s website can best be described as an “anti-design.”
It is an antithesis to contemporary web design, and with it, Weiwei gives the finger to many of the design axioms taught at leading design schools based on full-screen backgrounds, fancy image galleries, and smooth animations. Brilliant as it is simple, the design is a statement which forces visitors to fully concentrate on Weiwei’s art and message.
By peeling off all fluff, Weiwei has put his art in focus, and gives the viewer a blank slate to contemplate on his message without getting distracted by personal views on the design of the channel conveying it.
With this design, Weiwei has created one of the most efficient web designs published in recent years and he shows us that the constructivist idiom still matters.
No fluff for fluff’s sake.
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- Weiwei, A. (1994). COCA COLA VASE. [acrylic on Han dynasty vase] Beijing: Galerie Urs Meile.
- Weiwei, A. (1995a). DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN. [gelatin silver print on Alu Dibond, in three parts] Zurich: Galerie Urs Meile.
- Weiwei, A. (1995b). Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square. [Gelatin silver print] New York: MoMa.
- Weiwei, A. (2008). Straight, 2008