DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ai Weiwei: Art as Activism

Ai Weiwei's work fingers what is wrong in China.
An outraged Chinese government may be able to detain the physical presence of activist artist Ai Weiwei, but it can't contain the vision, voice, and spirit packed into his creations. And for one more week, you can experience the power of both the protest and playfulness of his works in the exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What? now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Chinese officialdom recognizes Weiwei's talent. He was instrumental in designing the Beijing Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics. However, the artist has been highly critical of his country's stance on democracy and human rights. His artistic recounting, both in social media and more traditional art forms, of corruption and cover-ups has led to incarcerations and a beating that left him with brain injuries. Undaunted, Weiwei continues to turn his travails into art, even posting pictures of his injuries and X-rays on Twitter.
Weiwei's sculpture of surveiilance

For artists and intellectuals today, what is most needed is to be clear about social responsibility because that is what most people automatically give up. Just to protect yourself as an individual is very political. You don’t have to march in Tianamen, but you have to be clear-minded to find your own expression. --- Ai Weiwei

In his greatest attack on the Chinese government, Weiwei played an instrumental role in investigating the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left 90,000 people dead or missing. Three of his works on display at the Hirshhorn deal with that tragedy. One is entitled "Snake City," in which Weiwei uses common student book bags in various sizes to create a giant snake to commemorate the thousands of students who perished in the disaster. He also manufactured a wall containing names of all the victims, as well as a taped remembrance of spoken names that takes 3 hours and 41 minutes to complete and plays on a continuous loop.
Snake of shame: Did faulty Chinese construction contribute to death total?

A name is the first and final individual right, our fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights. No matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name. --- Ai Weiwei

Another piece in the exhibition entitled "He Xie", represents the restriction of individual free speech in Chinese society. Literally, the term "he xie" means river crabs. But it is also a homophone for the word meaning harmonious, which in turn makes it a play on the Chinese party slogan "the realization of a harmonious society." In 2010, Weiwei, using Twitter, invited guests to a feast of 10,000 river crabs to protest the Chinese governments strict control of information. The artist was unable to attend for he had been placed under house arrest.

Extending a hand to those in trouble, rescuing the dying, and helping the injured is a form of humanitarianism unrelated to love of country or people. --- Ai Weiwei

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you are not at all familiar with  Ai Weiwei and his work, this trailer of the award-winning documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a good place to start.

(If you are receiving this post by email, click here to view the trailer).

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