Where activism meets art

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009

It’s possible for text to become meaningless shapes when we’re too close to it, especially if it’s written in an unfamiliar script. At first glance, maybe even to those who read Mandarin, the colourful wall of the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich which faced visitors to Ai Weiwei’s 2009 exhibition So Sorry, might have seemed more like a cheerful pattern rather than the poignant words of a grieving mother. The colour palette of red, yellow, green and blue is more redolent of children’s books than works of art and certainly doesn’t immediately suggest a memorial. Look closer and it’s clear that the building blocks of the banner are brightly coloured backpacks, the sort that children often use as school bags. But this is a work that needs an explanation.

From a distance, the work is easier to see as Chinese writing, though given that the work was made in Germany I’d guess that most of those who saw it would still – like me – have needed a translation and some context in order to make sense of it. The sentence reads: ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years’. To understand this work and the extraordinary political challenge it represents it’s necessary to find out more.

In 2008 an earthquake hit the Chinese province of Sichaun, with its epicentre around 50 miles from the city of Chengdu, the provincial capital. Among the tens of thousands of casualties were over 9,000 school children killed when shoddily built school buildings collapsed. Having seen the devastation and in the absence of any government action, Ai Weiwei worked with a team of volunteers to gather the names of the children who had died as a record. He published the information on his blog which was shut down by the Chinese authorities soon afterwards.

For his exhibition in Munich, Ai decided to make a work in memory of the children and having been struck by the children’s backpacks in the rubble, chose to work with similar bags to make the work. The words are those of the mother of one of the dead children. The work, like the names published on Ai’s blog, represent a challenge to the authorities to investigate whether the collapse of so many school buildings was due to poor construction. As with much of Ai’s work, it can be hard to determine where the boundary between art and activism lies, if indeed there is one. Ai Weiwei is an artist who works within the international art world of biennales and commercial galleries; greatly influenced by the Andy Warhol and the Factory, his work is now fabricated by others. But for Ai there is no real separation between his studio practice and his use of social media such as blogs and Twitter, and he has an absolute – and seemingly fearless – determination to seek justice and social change. As Ai says in the documentary Ai Weiwei Never Sorry: ‘The world is not changing if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility.’

When any artist puts their work in the public domain there’s never a guarantee that an audience will engage enough to read even the most basic information, with a work like Remembering that’s a risk the artist needs to take. And in any case, it’s hardly the greatest risk the Ai Weiwei was taking.

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry is previewing at the Curzon Soho and gets a wider UK release on Friday 10 August 2012

My article Art and the Political Message: Ai Weiwei and Peter Kennard for MostlyFilm discusses Ai’s work in more depth.

29 thoughts on “Where activism meets art

  1. Great post, Ann. Never Sorry is such a good film. Ai Weiwei reminds me of Joseph Beuys in a way – the same use of everyday objects (to make political points), bent in ways that make the artist’s aesthetic instantly recognisable, and bound to a life that’s playing out like a series of Actions. It’s exhilerating to watch.

    • The Beuys analogy is really interesting and not one that had occurred to me. And yes, the film’s great. Really enjoyable to watch – Ai is clearly very charismatic – and manages to say so much both about Ai’s art and activism and about China.

  2. Great piece and great photos. I loved the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which I saw at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn before its wider release in the U.S. To me, Ai’s life and work contain some powerful lessons for all artists. My thoughts on the film here, if you’re curious. http://bit.ly/ORts3V

  3. It reminds of a story I once having heard as noted. Two people strangers were looking at a picture in an art gallery of a female whom preparing a meal. One said “t’woud be interesting knowing what she was thinking”. The other replied “the mushrooms that she’s chopping are a very poisonous variety if one looks closer at her arms face one can see her bruising, seemingly she having reached her decision that in removing her partner but justified.

    Another event worth give a mention, once in a art gallery I almost tumbled over a pile of bricks which Ihaving not noticed I I thought it t’was just some work that going on in the gallery, having worked on building sites I was about to put the
    bricks in a neater pile preventing others falling over them when it coming to my attention the bricks but actually advertized as a work of art.

    Thus one continue learn in life there’s always ore than first perceived as with an iceberg it be far more hidden than there being revealed.

  4. I don’t understand why the Chinese authorities shut down the blog!!!!!
    Nothing wrong in what he created.
    He only wants to immortalize the names of victims of the earthquake.

    • No, that’s not all. He’s calling out the Chinese government, and telling them that they are at fault, simply by their inaction in investigating the workmanship and materials used on those schools.

      • Yes, it acts both as a memorial to those who were killed and as a challenge to the government which should have been investigating why the school buildings collapsed and compiled a list of the earthquake’s victims.

  5. Wow, what an amazing story. There’s not a lot more I can say without rambling at this point. Wow.

  6. So much can be done in a medium that truly hits people. The use of backpacks is so meaningful. I wonder if he put anything in the backpacks, like the children’s names that he was forced to take off his blog? I am all for Ai Weiwei’s activism and I hope he continues to shed light on the things that happen around the world that aren’t always covered heavily here.

    • I don’t think he put names in the backpack but he did invite people to send him recordings of themselves speaking the name of one of the missing which he used to make an audio work. And the list of names is on the wall in his home studio so it acts as a reminder throughout Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

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