Ai Weiwei: on Dissent

Around election time, when I was forced to unfriend or mute many a Facebook friend, I decided to purge my media. I unfollowed every media network except for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Vice. For good reason many of these sources have disabled commenting on their home site, but they can do nothing about the Facebook comments. I don’t remember what the article was, but I remember one day seeing a commenter calling the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal a biased, “liberal” news source.

Our respectable news sources are in danger, that much is clear. Everyone, from Meryl Streep to the New York Times, can be lambasted by internet conservatives for being biased or fake or whatever. So let’s talk about dissent a little. Not dissent here in America, where free speech is still protected (although those rights may be in danger, according to both sides of the political spectrum), but dissent in China. Specifically through the lens of the profound contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.

In 2009, Ai Weiwei began posting the names of the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake the previous year on his blog. Weiwei had personally visited the district to document these names from speaking with locals. What he found was a disproportionate amount of school children who perished because of poorly built schools. The Chinese government had attempted to cover this up.

Later that year, Ai Weiwei would take 9 thousand colorful children’s backpacks, reflective of the amount of deaths, and created a mural on the wall of the Haus der Kunst in Germany. In bright colors he spelled out:

“for seven years she lived happily on this earth,”

a quote from one victim’s mother.

This event was not the first and would not be last of Ai Weiwei’s public critique of China. Unlike journalists who speak out against the President Elect and get lambasted on twitter, this kind of behavior has physical consequences in China.

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the son of poet Ai Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist Party until the Anti-Rightist campaign the year Weiwei was born (the start of the Cultural Revolution). The family was sent to rural Northern China to hard labor until the death of Mao a decade later. In college he cofounded an avant-garde art group, and in 1980 relocated to New York City, where he became friends with other visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and studied Dadaist Marcel Duchamp closely.

Duchamp became famous for his “ready-made” work, or taking pre-made objects and changing them someone to create a piece of art. This is something Weiwei would replicate in his own career.

In 1993, Weiwei returned to Beijing where he remained for some time, at one point due to government mandate. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days by Chinese authorities based on bogus tax-evasion charges and was barred from leaving the country. Still, being under house arrest didn’t stop him.

Ai Weiwei is one of the most visible contemporary artists, despite once being under a travel restriction and living behind the Chinese internet firewall. He is known as being a iconoclast, or a destroyer of images or culture. One of his most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a 4,000 year old Han dynasty urn and it smashing to pieces.

A major theme of his work is dissent — against censorship, oppressions, and the rejection of traditions.

He is a vanguard of social media, going so far as to say that

“the Internet and social media have become the only forms of democracy in China.”

On Twitter and his blog, he is boldly outspoken on the importance of free speech and the empowering aspect of social media. After the Chinese government fined him 2.4 million dollars (in US amounts) after that “tax evasion” thing, over 30,000 people donated 1.4 million from donors via the internet. In just a week. Weiwei has even described waking up and finding money folded into airplanes that were sent over his courtyard wall.

In China, where the government pushes relentlessly forward into the future, Weiwei reminds us to take a step back. With his art he employs hundreds of people in China to use traditional pottery techniques to make thousands of thousands of sunflower seeds, which he then encourages museum visitors to take with them; he takes antiques that would be lost to an attic and makes them into a complicated, visual web.

Part of why I love Ai Weiwei is that his work is not just about the study of a space or an object or even a simple theme. His work explores an entire culture and what it means to both inherent a legacy and be part of the future. The world is pretty absurd, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His work is reflective of China and also his own whimsical nature.

His art is bold and unapologetic — exactly how he is.

So what does thinking about Ai Weiwei mean for an American audience, here and now? Well, for one, he’s a vocal critic of Donald Trump. But besides that, Weiwei shows that sometimes artists (and anyone, like journalists, who want to something truthful in the face of obstruction) have to be fearless. Personally, I doubt that the media will completely dissolve under Trump — I mean, look at the spike in Vanity Fair subscriptions after Trump criticized them on Twitter). However, like Weiwei, everyone involved in media has to stand up for what they believe in.

Further Watching:
Ai Weiwei — Sunflower Seeds by the Tate
The Case for Ai Weiwei by the Art Assignment