The Hydra of Consumption

Danielle Garcia
Oct 20, 2014 3:33AM

“I don’t feel powerful at all. I’m still under this… detention [by the government]. Maybe being powerful means to be fragile. I think that art certainly is the vehicle for us to develop any new ideas, to be creative, to extend our imagination. Yes, I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.” Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and activist, reacts to being named the most powerful artist in 2011 by Art Review Magazine (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Dir. Alison Klayman). This statement about unfailing individuality despite the iron clamp of a government serves as the inspiration for the exhibition The Hydra of Consumption. The following works explore the fluid definition of consumption and how, even with its multiple interpretations, it can inhibit the full experience of life.

The exhibition leads the visitors to ponder what it means to consume and how that consumption has often led to abject acceptance or self-destruction, which it accomplishes with the first confrontation between the visitor and Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring one of His Sons. After absorbing the gruesome subject, the unsettling characteristic of the painting is realized when one notices Saturn’s eyes. They convey fear and regret with such subtlety that it is unbearably human. How cruel he must be to consume one of his own, but as literal as this piece is, Weiwei’s paradox is apparent in the pained expression on his face. The quote “to be powerful is to be fragile” provides insight into the emotions driving an activist of mankind to combat the intimidation of a tyrannical government and an unhealthy relationship, as well as oblivion and failure, through instructive art. Thus, we end up consuming ourselves if we fail to seek positive change in an intolerant environment.

As visitors journey through the exhibition, Splitting: Four Corners by Gordon Matta-Clark, Sweepers and Mule-Room Boys by Lewis Hine, and Ai Weiwei’s cover art for So Sorry will intrigue them with themes that deal with the destruction of family, the exploitation of children, and the misconduct of authority, respectively. During the years of ignoring the government’s warnings about revealing restricted information through art, and enduring mistreatment by officers blinded by duty, Ai Weiwei enlightens the silent percentage of the Chinese population that is too consumed with the diluted way of things by constantly documenting his thoughts and photographs through social media.

What synthesizes these multiple interpretations of consumption is Robert Rauschenberg’s Hiccups which concludes the exhibition. As a collection of ninety-seven separate designs on paper, it blurs into one continuous line of color at a distance, but it is when the observer focuses on a single portion at a time that they make their individual impressions. The presence of uniqueness despite the overarching consumption of individuality supports Ai Weiwei’s remark about the protection of freedom of expression. If an artist captures the attention of the government, and more importantly the people, it is his or her duty to make art that questions, informs, and provokes.

Danielle Garcia