Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is determined the school children who lost their lives in the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008 will not be forgotten. I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and saw three installations created by the dissident Chinese artist to honor the children who died in schools during the earthquake.
Visitors walk in front of a list of more than 5000 names of children that cover one whole wall in the AGO. When Ai Weiwei visited the site of the Sichuan earthquake he was outraged by the shoddy construction of the school houses that had collapsed and killed thousands of children. Frustrated with the Chinese government who refused to investigate or release the names of the children who had died Ai Weiwei launched a citizen’s investigation project to compile a list of the victims.
He has listed 5000 of them in this installation including their names, gender, date of birth, age, school class and home address.
In August 300 people came together at the Art Gallery of Ontario for a community art performance Say Their Names, Remember. During this four-hour event, participants read aloud the names of the 5,200 school children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. As you stand in front of this installation at the art gallery you can hear the names being read aloud. Even though Ai Weiwei was put in jail for 81 days for his criticism of the handling of the earthquake by the Chinese government he continued to make art pieces about the event that were controversial. This exhibit is composed of 150 tons of steel rebar which Ai Weiwei recovered from the sites of the collapsed schools in Sichuan. He has straightened all the bent rebar and arranged it in stacks. It creates an eery landscape. By straightening the pieces Ai Weiwei demonstrates his desire to try to make things right for the forgotten victims of the earthquake. This exhibit called STRAIGHT was displayed at the 2013 Venice Art Bienalle.
Ai Weiwei is no longer in prison but Chinese authorities will not give him his passport so he cannot travel with his art exhibit. His phone has been tapped, his 76 year old mother interrogated and his personal blog shut down. In this exhibit called Snake Bag he memoralizes the children of Sichuan with a snake made of children’s school bags. When Ai Weiwei visited the sites of the schools that had been destroyed he saw children’s backpacks scattered in the rubble, a tangible symbol of the boys and girls whose lives had been cut short.
The Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario has many fascinating works of art, some of which I will write about in future posts. However at the heart of the exhibit are these three unique pieces that remind everyone who visits the gallery of the innocent children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. Ai Weiwei is making sure they will not be forgotten.
Other posts about memorial art ………..