Art & Society: Ai Weiwei
Art cannot exist in a condition that is separate from that of society. The purpose of art is to criticize, reckon with, and to expand and create inquiries within in viewers. Ai Weiwei, Chinese activist and artist, has dedicated his work to unveiling forms of oppression within the sociopolitical realm of China. Through his works, Ai Weiwei has challenged the false truths spread by the Chinese government. Ai’s dedication to his practice stems beyond art making. Activism is the central component of Ai’s art making. The Western World often takes for granted the opportunity to criticize. It is a right in the United States to be able to criticize the government and its practices. Though freedom of speech is not always honored in the United States, it must be noted that in a nation like China, there is no right to freedom of speech. In fact, the government actively polices the practice. That is why Ai Weiwei’s art making is unique in the world of activism. Through disrupting the status quo and consistently challenging the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei has been regarded as “China’s Most Dangerous Man.”
Ai Weiwei, Image Courtesy: Time.com
In his installation piece, “Remembering,” Ai Weiwei addresses the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and recognizes the lives lost in the natural disaster. The Chinese government had complete control over the information that was shared to the Chinese public. The lack of information and clarity provided by the Chinese government prompted Ai to investigate the tragedy and search for answers with the help of his team:
We went out to the crisis area, to the ruins of the earthquake. We knocked on doors around the villages and met victims’ parents. The information we requested was simple: names, dates of birth, the schools the children lost their lives at. We asked our team to record all the details they were given in diaries when they were in the disaster areas – just very plain language with no emotion. (Ai)
The Chinese government actively resisted Ai Weiwei’s efforts to uncover the truths behind the Sichuan earthquakes. It was revealed that more than 80,000 people lost their lives in the earthquake. Many children and students were victims of the earthquake due to the fact that their schools were not properly constructed. These schools collapsed, resulting in the deaths of many children. Corruption in the construction of these schools holds the Chinese government responsible for the deaths of these children. Ai’s “Remembering” is a simple yet well thought out installation on Haus der Kunst, comprised of 9,000 backpacks. Blue backpacks set the background for the yellow, green, and red mandarin characters that spell out: “She had been living happily for seven years” (Ai). The words spelt by the backpack are those of a victim’s mother. Ai chose to write these words in Mandarin, although the piece was displayed in Munich, Germany: “They didn’t understand the Chinese writing, so it forced them to find out, to learn, to read about the show” (Ai). Ai drew inspiration from TOYS R US in his utilization of the colors blue, green, yellow, and red. Through this installation, Ai juxtaposed childlike imagery with a heavy statement from a grieving mother, to invoke inquiries about whose voices are being heard, and what tragedies and truths are being silenced. Through this, Ai has empowered those affected by this tragedy.
Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009, Haus der Kunst (Munich)
Many artists use their work as a vessel to promote social change, however Ai Weiwei’s practice is much different. Few artists can claim that their work has had them abused, assaulted, and arrested by their own government. Ai Weiwei has changed the way the world views artists and their position in creating social change. Ai Weiwei has demonstrated the importance of engaging with ideologies that may be in opposition to one's government: “The kind of authoritarian state we have in China cannot survive if it answers questions – if the truth is revealed, they are finished. So they started to think of me as the most dangerous person in China. That made me become an artist, but also an activist” (Ai). Through his art, Ai is not demonstrating his hatred for China, but instead his devotion to the nation and the pursuit of making China a more just nation.