You must have at least heard the name Ai Weiwei, right? But who is he, and what’s his deal? Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist critical of the Chinese government's treatment of democracy and human rights. His story has been made into a documentary called Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. In the las year, as a result of his outspoken criticism of the government, Chinese authorities have beat him up, bulldozed his studio, and held him in secret detention in 2011 for nearly three months. His secret detention even prompted a Free Ai Weiwei street art campaign in Hong Kong. On October 7, his first major U.S. show "According to What?" will open in Washington, D.C.
Blurring Art and Politics
Like the film, the story of Ai is the story of a “dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics.”
In his 2011 Ted Talk, he described via pre-recorded video message (since the Chinese government would not let him out of the country) how you cannot even search Ai Weiwei in the internet in China as the characters are deleted once you type them.
He connects art and social change. For his work, in May of 2012, he received the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation along with Saudi Arabian women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif and Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He has also been blogging with Sina Weibo, one of the biggest internet platforms in China since 2005, and in December 2011, he was one of four runners-up for Time's Person of the Year award.
The Art Amidst Sunflower Seeds
Ok, so he's won awards and been recognized, but what is his art all about? From October 2010 to May 2011 a piece called “Sunflower Seeds” was exhibited at the Tate Modern. The piece consisted of millions of life-sized sunflower seeds hand-crafted in porcelain by specialists working in a workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. As the exhibition information states, “Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.”
Ai has exhibited around the world in Australia, Europe, North and South America. On 25 July 2009, Ai opened his solo show “According to What?” at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, Japan. This exhibition presented 26 works, most made over the past decade. The show will now be featured at The Hirschhorn on October 7. The Washington, D.C. venue will be Ai’s first major show in the U.S. featuring new as well as older works. Unfortunately, Ai will not be present for his show, as the government still has his passport. “They said they want to give it to me but have no clear time schedule for that,” Ai told the New York Times.
According to the Huffington Post, the exhibit will also feature works from his most recent interactions with the government, including an installation made from steel reinforcement bars from the rubble of the school collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. A collection of porcelain river crabs, will also be featured. The crabs are a reminder of the public feast he hosted at his studio in honor of its destruction. River crab also means harmony in Chinese, a word the government uses as a euphemism for censorship.
I wish I was in D.C. this weekend to pay homage to river crabs, and a true political artist.
"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" opens at the Hirshorn in Washing D.C. on Oct 7. The exhibit runs through February 24, 2013.