A couple of weeks ago, I was able to meet one of the most famous living artists in the world as he was leaving his Bare Life exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in Washington University.
Ai Weiwei is an internationally known dissident artist and activist from China. With over 350,000 Twitter followers and 548,000 followers on Instagram, Ai Weiwei is very active on social media and is not afraid to voice his discontent.
“I’m always interested in art which is interesting and challenging as art, but at the same time also voices political and social issues,” said Dr. Sabine Eckmann, Director and Chief Curator of the Kemper Art Museum, where Ai’s exhibit is installed.
Ai has a long-standing history with the Chinese government. He has been arrested, beaten by police and put under surveillance. He’s even had his studio bulldozed on fabricated charges. Yet, he continues to fight the authoritarian power system in China.
Ai is always documenting his surroundings. “He has always had this awareness that he’s going to record what’s going on around him in the environment and with himself,” said CHS Chinese teacher Hongling Zhang.
Perhaps Ai’s contempt for social inequality comes from his father, Ai Qing, who was an extremely well-known poet in Chinese society during the time of the Cultural Revolution when he was exiled to Northeastern China during the Anti-Rightist Movement.
Now, Ai himself is exiled from China entirely.
Ai’s biggest claim to fame might arise from his work in designing the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics as a collaboration with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & deMeuron; however, Ai became disillusioned with the way the Chinese government was treating the Olympics and ultimately boycotted the Olympic Games altogether.
In a 2012 documentary about Ai titled Never Sorry he says, “I’m not for a kind of Olympics where they’re forcing immigrants out of the city [and] tell[ing] the ordinary citizens they should not participate, but to just make a fake smile for the foreigners and become purely [Communist] party propaganda.”
At the exhibit, there are photos of the construction of the stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” but there are also much newer works of his, including a fully immersive monument titled “Through,” which consists of Qing Dynasty tables, beams, and pillars that intersect and form a sculpture which visitors can walk in and explore.
“Many exhibitions of artwork you go into the exhibition and you just look at something static. This exhibition is more experiential,” Eckmann said.
By taking ancient pieces of destroyed furniture and repurposing them into something new, Ai criticizes how the Chinese government destroyed traditional aspects of Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution and continues to destroy historic villages for urbanization.
“He was trying to show that the cultural traditions in China do matter and that they should not just be discarded,” Eckmann added.
In a hall covered in wallpaper depicting the urbanization and demolition of old buildings in China, there is an ancient vase that Ai vandalized by painting the Coca-Cola logo on it, as well as an image of Ai dropping a Han dynasty urn. Although his own destruction of ancient objects may seem hypocritical, Ai attracts attention to the fact that although people make a big deal of him damaging priceless historical artifacts, that is what the Chinese government does every day on a large scale.
Photo taken by Junyi Su
Eckmann notes, “the theme of that gallery is to show that the present situation is disconnected from the past and also from the future so that traditions have been shattered.”
What could better embody this complex dichotomy than an old vase with a modern company’s logo painted on it?
Ai experiments with societal boundaries. In his exhibit, there are pictures of him flipping off the White House and Tiananmen Square, along with a wall of middle fingers arranged in different configurations.
“He is very much in your face. He challenges the boundaries of your perspective… All of his artworks are very impressive. Whether you like it or not, you will remember it,” Zhang said.
Ai also denounces war and death, especially in terms of the refugee crisis.
In view upon entering the exhibit is a 1,830-square foot wallpaper mural depicting full-scale bombs, from grenades to nuclear missiles, which not only captivates the viewer but also instills fear of the sheer destructive potential war weapons have. The second exhibit room holds a wallpaper epic drawn in an ancient Greek style covering two out of four walls depicting war, protests, refugees, and death. Filling the room are painted tear gas canisters, inner tube lifebuoys and TV screens showing Ai Ai’s visit to a refugee camp in Greece.
Although Ai’s work sometimes seems vague or avant-garde, it always has a deeper meaning. Take his work surrounding his inquiries into the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. When the government did not release the names of over 5,000 students who died due to poorly built schools, Ai conducted a “citizens’ investigation” where he and volunteers gathered the names of the student victims.
If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening. ”
— Ai Weiwei
The exhibit not only includes the letters from government officials responding to Ai’s investigation, but there are caskets made of Ming and Qing dynasty Huali wood which contain bent rebar salvaged from schools that collapsed in the earthquake. With this piece, not only does Ai memorialize the children and criticize the weak government-built buildings, but he also uses ancient and rare wood which relates the catastrophic earthquake to the complex history of demolition and weak urbanization that plagues China.
And in a time of political turmoil, with governments on trial, demonstrations in Hong Kong and a massive refugee crisis, Ai’s messages become increasingly relevant.
As Eckmann said, people should see Ai because “his art is not only visualizing creativity… or artistic currents, but because it is visualizing human rights violations… Ai Weiwei is giving voice to people, and just as human beings, I think that it is very important to be aware of that and to care about other human beings who are not as lucky as we are.”
“If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening,” said Ai Weiwei.
Now is the time to push the system and make something happen.