Ai Weiwei

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These days Ai Weiwei is an art god. Of course, I didn’t know that when I decided to skip the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation at the Tate Modern (bit too conceptual for me at the time).

I was only converted to the cause upon seeing a Frontline documentary a friend forwarded to me. It was a prelude to the documentary ‘So Sorry’.

In the video I was struck by the story of an activist speaking out against any bureaucracy that would rather sweep away the past, overlooking its mistakes, than acknowledge its poor decision making. Something we see around the world, where governments act first and apologise later, “we are so sorry…” without any real accountability.

“To tell the truth, whether big truth or small truth, should always be justified”, Ai Weiwei.

Weiwei religiously documents his daily life, with words and pictures, often online. Even in this, I see him challenging the norm. Where most of us take photos only at memorable moments, he points and shoots with abandon, at whatever is around him, regardless of what is in the picture or how it turned out. He is capturing the truth of his day and he is the one who decides its significance.

Weiwei’s daily exploration of the world around him resonated with people, so when he called people to action, they came. Volunteering to right a wrong and publish as many names of the school children that died in the Sichuan earthquake. Many perished due to poor construction of school buildings with the government refusing to release names of the dead. Together, they published over 4000 names.

Anyone garnering the attention of international media by questioning the role of the government is certainly going to become a focus of that government. His blog was censored or shut down, he was placed under surveillance, he was beaten, his studio destroyed, he was arrested, held without charge for 2 months and denied the right to leave China.

“I am more fearful than most people, I act more brave as I know the danger is really there”, Ai Weiwei.

Despite all of this Weiwei continues to speak out and challenge authority. His inner hooligan feeds his continued determination to be “subversive” in the face of extreme prejudice and equal determination to silence him.

“If you don’t speak out, if you don’t clear your mind, then who are you”, Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei is a dangerous artist, there are few who are willing or able to maintain such a loud voice in a sea of apathy. In the western world, we are all too often accepting of what happens around us; it is too hard to be heard or even know how to speak. I too am guilty of not speaking in the face of controversy.

The sheer size of his installations provides that loud voice in a noisy world. The 5000 children’s backpacks on the exterior of the Haus de Kunst, Munich, reading “she lived happily in this world for seven years” is simply audacious.

In researching this piece online, much is said about Ai Weiwei the activist – it is harder to find commentary of the art itself. The vehicle for expression seems overshadowed by the message.

I find his art incredibly peaceful and calming, and yet, as my understanding of the context and concept grows, the more I am shocked and awed about what he is conveying and how he is conveying it.

Generally, conceptual art is about an individual finding personal meaning in an artist’s work. With Weiwei its different, the context is just as important as the concept.

I am struck by his ability to transform the past, to implicitly question whether the cultural history and bureaucratic structures we accept as part of our daily lives are actually in our best interests.

The thousands of bicycles going nowhere; the discarded Ming dynasty doors, windows and stools refashioned into something useless; the beams of a Ming dynasty temple created into a map of China; the ancient trees stumps placed into an art gallery – all commenting on life in China and seeking to change the way people understand that life.

When I first saw the Ming dynasty vases repainted with industrial paints, I was outraged at the destruction of historical artefacts. But the more I understand about Ai Weiwei, the more I see his point – to change or destroy the past is to give hope to a new future. You can never forget where you have come from, individually and collectively, but to stop history repeating itself you have to change the perspective of many.

Weiwei doesn’t abide by society’s implicit rules. He doesn’t set out to make art, art is another way to question those rules in his search for truth and a better China.

“Liberty is about our right to question everything,” Ai Weiwei.

Who are the authorities to decide what is precious, what is historical, what should be preserved and what should not? Why should government decide who you can marry, when you can die and what medical treatments you have to have? These are rights of the individual and yet, it is bureaucracy that makes these decisions for us.

I haven’t seen his works, but I have felt the power of his ideas and an idea can change everything, if you are brave enough to speak loudly.

Vision Board Themes: awe, transformation, culture, ideas, big, history, hooligan, determination, authenticity

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