Earthquakes and Art Activism

A small act is worth a million thoughts — Ai Wei Wei

I am rarely moved by art for days and weeks after visiting an exhibit. Ai Wei Wei’s recent work at the Royal Academy of Arts was an exception. I stumbled upon it, embarrassingly ignorant of who he was only to discover that he is a globally renowned artist, activist and cultural icon.

“Straight” one of the installations on display relates to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. It was one of China’s deadliest killing 70,000 people including 5,000 children when thousands of school buildings collapsed. The schools were later found to be shoddily constructed and became known as “tofu-dreg schoolhouses” — a direct result of pervasive government corruption.

The indignity of these deaths is hard to imagine and the lives left behind long forgotten. Except when a rare, courageous being gives them a voice.

Ai Wei Wei’s installation displays 90 tons of steel rebars recovered from the school buildings. As stark symbols of the corruption, these bars were completely mangled during the earthquake. Ai Wei Wei’s team spent 4 years painstakingly straightening out the rebars by hand and collecting the names of the victims never published by the Chinese Government. Beside the heavy steel, 5,190 names are listed on the walls.

Image Credit: Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei was incarcerated illegally for 81 days in 2011 as a result of bringing such negligence to light. Looking upon Straight evokes feelings of both loss and defiance. That some dignity was restored to those who lost their lives through this art, instills a sense of hope in humanity in contrast to the corruption that led to it.

In 2001, I spent time volunteering in Gujarat after the earthquake on January 26th which killed over 19,000 people. After interviewing over 50 children orphaned by the disaster, I was numb. Many watched helplessly as their parents were killed and their schools and homes were destroyed. A team of us returned to the UK and ran the Veerayatan Sponsor a Child fund for 5 years in the hope that educational rehabilitation would restore some sense of purpose and peace. It never felt like enough.

Long after the media spotlight, short-term aid and Government declared days of mourning, the real savages of any major earthquake lie within the broken communities left behind. Weaving back together an emotional and socio-economic fabric is incredibly difficult. Longer term rehabilitation efforts are slow and ill equipped to deal with the scale of secondary effects.

Ai Wei Wei through his artistic courage gave back some life to one of those communities. I encourage you to see it for yourself.

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