12/12/2011 12:45 GMT | Updated 11/02/2012 05:12 GMT

The Art World Has Always Existed to Respond to Uneasiness

In Beijing to visit Ai Weiwei. His first exhibition at Lisson Gallery, last May, ended up coinciding with his 81 day detention, so he couldn't come. The show generated huge public following. People were interested to know what was happening to him, and since we couldn't say, we talked about his art. His work is 'political' in ways that are sometimes specific and more usually deep-rooted. As an artist, architect and activist he adopts a transparent and ethical approach to the smallest and the biggest human actions, whether political or cultural.

On the way here I reflected on why Ai Weiwei and Lisson Gallery had decided to work together. Lisson Gallery will be 45 years old next March. It was the initiative of a young contrarian art student, Nicholas Logsdail, who in 1967 was bored with the art around him. Luckily his frustration coincided with the rise of a new generation of artists in America, England and Europe (also China and Brazil, an early internationalism that was later overlooked) including key figures Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Art & Language and John Latham.

Judd had written, in 1965, a key essay on 'Specific Objects' where he described a powerful new form of three-dimensional art that was neither painting nor sculpture. Describing the reasons behind the shift of ethos, Judd said 'The motive to change is always some uneasiness.' When artistic generations react against their predecessors they are often accused of being opportunistic, or fashionable, when in fact what they're doing is both necessary and inevitable.

The future is built on the rejection of the past. Judd's generation's achievement was not just to do it but to know it: to be aware of the conceptual foundation for their new way of looking at the world. LeWitt focused on essential forms, liberating line and geometry from the bondage of description or decoration. Art & Language did the same with words, freeing text from tyrannical dogmas, allowing it a creative life of its own. Together, they cut through complacency and received wisdom, recognising art's responsibility to keep it new: new not as in fashionable, which is only repeated habit, but new as in alive and thinking.

New York 1965...London 1967...Beijing 2011. A lot has changed in the art world and the wider world. But 'uneasiness' and the need to respond to it evidently persist. The art that came out of the Conceptual revolution offers the world not merely a reflection, but a distillation of what it means to be human at any given time.

Ai Weiwei has got into trouble for challenging the Chinese authorities' failure to account for their actions. The highest profile case relates to the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, in which over 5,000 schoolchildren were crushed to death when their schools collapsed. Corrupt contractors had built buildings that failed to meet accepted standards to resist such shocks.

Ai's immediate response to the tragedy, as a citizen of China, was to ask (on his blog, then active) "Who is dead? How many? What are the costs? Where are the bodies?" Nobody knew or would admit enough responsibility to find out. He instigated the Citizens' Investigation, with 200 volunteers interviewing the families and communities of the dead, gathering and posting the details of their lives in an act of civic recognition. This has been described both as activism and as social sculpture - for Ai Weiwei the distinction is meaningless.

On the day of my visit, lying about the studio were a number of steel rods that had been embedded in the shoddy buildings and subsequently poked twisted out of their crumbled ruins. They all still bear the kinks and dents of their damage. Whatever he finally does with these inert but poignant relics, Ai's aim is not to estheticise the tragedy, but to apply the rigorous language of art to freeze their complex histories into artifacts that will be useful to future generations. Observing these works in progress I reflected that they amply merited Judd's powerful formulation 'specific objects.'