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