Posing with a statue of dissident artist Ai Weiwei at the Art Gallery of Ontario
The news on Saturday that dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing was being demolished by Chinese authorities without any notice reminded me of visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario I made five years ago to see a stunning display of Ai Weiwei’s work.
Ai Weiwei has curried criticism from Chinese authorities with exhibits like this snake he made with school bags to commerate the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake because of shoddy construction of their schools. The Chinese government refused to investigate or release the names of the children who had died so Ai Weiwei launched a citizen’s investigation project to compile a list of the victims. They were on a paper covering an entire wall in the exhibit I saw.
These Han Dynasty Pots are more than 2000 years old. By decorating them with bright industrial paint Ai Weiwei reminds viewers of the wholesale destruction of artifacts from China’s past during the Cultural Revolution.
Here he decorates a pot with the Coca Cola logo to show how globalization is changing China, making its history of less value and perhaps hinting at some of the health concerns created in China because of globalization.
Called Brain Inflation this piece shows the x-ray of Ai Weiwei’s head that was taken to determine the physical damage he suffered when he was beaten by Chinese authorities prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 2009.
In this famous photo the artist gives the finger to Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City. Work like this is probably why Ai Weiwei has been living in exile in Germany for the last three years ever since his four years of house arrest in China ended. It may also be why his Shanghai studio was demolished by authories in 2011 and maybe even why his Beijing studio was reduced to rubble last week without any prior notice, although government officials claim it was all just part of a program to get rid of unsafe old buildings in order to make room for new rental properties. Sadly other Chinese artists’ studios were destroyed as well.
Ai Weiwei with an installation in New York called Fences Make Good Neighbours. It opened in October of 2017 and is a commentary on the refugee crisis.
What has happened to Ai Weiwei is a good reminder that freedom of artistic expression should never be taken for granted.
Thoughts on Hope
A Controversial Statue
The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way
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 ………..
9/11 Putting Stories and Faces to Names
Landscapes For the End of Time
A Controversial Statue
Visit to the MOMA