Ai Weiwei - A man of courage and determination

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Ashwin Dyre

Professor Flippin

English 214

9 October 2014


Although perhaps not world renowned just yet, Ai Weiwei is inching ever closer to becoming the world's most influential political artist. Depicting his art through various and creative mediums such as architecture, sculpture, photography and film has helped him reach a broadened audience, inclusive of both art enthusiasts and the general public. Using this broadened audience to his advantage, Ai Weiwei seeks to spread his beliefs and criticisms across the world, bringing awareness of what otherwise might have gone unnoticed. I believe that through his own detainment and the unjust detainment of many others, Ai Weiwei, a contemporary Chinese artist, is changing society by bringing global awareness about the injustices served to those standing up for their beliefs. And as we will see, Ai himself, along with his art and the stories of dissidents from all over will serve as living testaments to this prevailing injustice today.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained and jailed for 3 months by the Chinese government for "subversion of state power." This is a phrase used by the Chinese government to justify the arrests of activists. However, as Pellett says, Ai was actually arrested for his tweets and blogs critiquing the government (3). Ai himself says, "Nobody could ever have imagined something like this would happen: you're accused by the State, and everybody supports you" (1). Within hours, news spread globally on the mysterious disappearance of the progressive artist. Internationally, Britain, the United States, and the European Union were all actively involved in speculating over the detention of Ai and the wider search for activists and dissidents ("US Department of State" 1). The government's crackdown for activists didn't stop with the arrest of Ai Weiwei, as they continued to look for any possible people assisting Weiwei. After no word on the whereabouts of Ai, worry begain to set in internationally and politicians soon began to speak out. According to, Mark Toner, the deputy spokesperson for the US Department of State firmly took a stand on the detention of Ai, and urged the Chinese government for his release. According to Michael Posner, William Hague, a former secretary of state, also called for a clarification on the detainment of Ai and asked for a statement on his well being (6). Global concern and awareness spread beyond the US, and local questioning from the ICA who also expressed concern. After just 36 hours and no word from the Chinese, the EU Union, Germany, and France also respectfully voiced their opinions. Christine Bennett states that Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister at the time, urged for clarification on the charges and asked for his release (2). The nations of the world had outcried for a justifiable explanation to Ai Weiwei's disappearance. Tracy Emin, an English artist said, "I hope he is safe. He is an artist who raises global awareness" (Posner 7). Being a artist known across many countries, Weiwei was able to bring global uproar and awareness after being unlawfully detained. Throughout his life, Ai Weiwei had fought for the freedom of speech and expression for others but now was a victim to the very issue he had strived against! And although the situation had seemed bleak at the time, Weiwei, using himself as a living testament, was bringing global attention to the cause he was fighting for all along without ever being aware of it.

Although Ai Weiwei's arrest unintentionally helped bring attention to his own cause, Weiwei is undoubtably making a conscious impact to further spread his beliefs and criticisms. Through his unique art, architecture, and paintings in exhibitions across the world, Ai is depicting the unjust detainment, in some cases exile, of others from all over. With his most recent installation on the island of Alcatraz in California, Ai Weiwei uses a variety of art to depict activists, dissidents, and religious groups, who stood up for their beliefs even in the midst of prosecution. According to Miranda, one of his most popular works at the exhibit is named "Trace" (1). Trace is a collection made entirely of lego bricks illustrating the names and faces of 176 people who have been exiled for their beliefs or political affiliations. One of the "lego paintings" shows Fariba Kamalabadi, who Naizda claims was jailed in Iran for being one of the 7 people leading the persecuted Baha'i religious group (6732). Another work which greets guests as they come in is referred to as "With Wind". A large Chinese dragon, made from paper, silk and bamboo, has quotes referring to free speech and expression written all over it. One of the quotes is from Le Quoc Quan, an activist and lawyer who was jailed in Vietnam. He said, " words are well-intended and innocent under Vietnamese and International law" (Miranda 3). But what many tourists might not catch right away is the symbolism in the dragon itself. Aside from having historical and distinct cultural ties, Shelly claims that the dragon for many Chinese represent qualities of value, importance, boldness, heroism (195). Chin says that a dragon like person would overcome obstacles until success is his [or hers] (30). They are brave and bold for standing up for what they believe in, while not letting the obstacles of being detained getting in their way. These are values that are clearly reflected by the dissidents in the art, and Ai Weiwei purposefully used a dragon to depict their strong will and determination. We also see Weiwei use creative representation in his presentation of Porcelain flowers. Miranda observes that he's filled the cell's toilets, sinks, and bathtubs with little white porcelain flowers (2). At first glance, one might not realize what these flowers represent, but closer inspection and it becomes clear. Ai is referring to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Campaign led by activist and Chief of State Mao Zedong to lift restrictions imposed by the Chinese and grant greater freedom of speech (Mao 3).

Ai can be anything but conventional when it comes to art. This can be seen with his various installations which use anything from children's backpacks (Remembering in 2009) to millions of sunflower seeds (Sunflower Seeds in 2010). His Remembering installation goes back to 2008, when a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan, China killing nearly 70,000 along with 5,335 students. With the pressure of Ai, and other activists, China publicly promised to investigate the school's collapse. But the government later went back on that promise, suggesting that the disaster was due to natural causes and not faulty construction. Ai, with the help of others found that the majority of these deaths occurred in damaged schools. Grube points out that many looking into the matter were beaten and detained including Zhao Ying, Lu, and Yang and Ai Weiwei himself, whom all researched the truth (2). In 2009, Ai Weiwei commemorated the children who passed by creating a 10x100 installation in Germany composed of children's backpacks saying the words, "For seven years she lived happily on this earth," referring to a mom's words on her daughter. Listed near the art are the names of those who were unlawfully detained while in search for the truth.

A hint of Weiwei's unique, yet unorthodox style is carried into the Alcatraz exhibit as well. In a few isolated, psychiatric, rooms there have been sound tracks installed. The sounds are of exiled Tibetan monks in India and the Hopi, 2 groups which Ai feels like have stood firm in their beliefs even when pressured. In Cell Block A, Miranda says there are similar sound clips of protest from Fela Kuti, and by the Pussy Riot (2). Fela Kuti, a world famous musician was jailed for his song lyrics criticizing the nigerian government in the late 70's. Members of the Pussy Riot were also jailed for vocalizing their opposition to the Russian government. Ai Weiwei has creatively implemented these stories of political and cultural struggle for dissidents around the world. The idea of using Alcatraz as a host for all the artwork makes perfect sense. Alcatraz, a place of confinement and solitude traps freedom. This is clearly illustrated in Ai's piece titled "Refraction". It is a giant wing, composed entirely of reflective panels from Tibet, a region that has been imposed by Chinese rule. As Clark mentions, the wing wants to go somewhere, it wants to fly to freedom but is trapped by the four walls keeping it grounded (1). Aside from symbolic significance, why else did Ai chose Alcatraz? Perhaps another reason for choosing Alcatraz was simply for the widespread tourist exposure. More than a million visitors from around the world visit the park each year ("Bureau of Prisons 1"). Although these works of art are intentionally placed in places of greater exposure, Ai knows that not everyone has the time and money to go visit places such as San Francisco, London, or Germany. To help remedy this, he is active on blogs and twitter posting not only his own art, but the art of many others, while speaking his mind on the tension between activists and the Chinese government. Obrist says in 2006, Ai Weiwei opened one of these blogs which he used as a daily notebook generating over 100,000 views every day (26). This blog was soon shut down by the government, however Ai still reaches out to thousands using his twitter. In an interview with Landreth, he says that twitter is his "favorite city," a place where he can spread his art, views and simply communicate with people around the world (3). By using the internet to spread injustice against human rights and corruption, Ai Weiwei has generated an influx of supporters causing increased awareness globally. With this kind of global scale exposure, we can be sure that Weiwei's reaching of his message will extend far beyond just the locals of San Francisco.

Through his various forms of art, Ai Weiwei has shed light on the wrongful injustices and detainments of those standing up for their beliefs. Starting with his own arrest in 2011, he showed the world what it meant to stand firm even when improperly accused. He thereafter has created an entire exhibition dedicated to the thousands that were before him, all unfairly incriminated for what they believed was right. And although difficult, Ai has taken steps to insure his message reaches as many people as possible through the internet and social media. The globalization of his message is letting people know that deprivation of basic human rights is a prevalent issue and is practiced in many countries to this day. Ai himself says, "This fight is not about me. It's a fight for simple principles: freedom of expression and human rights - the essential rights, like sharing our opinions that make us humans and not slaves" (3). Ai Weiwei is right. This fight is not about him, but about society at large. When we come to this understanding, we can all take part, stand together, and confront the injustice that has been overshadowed for too long.

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