Ai Weiwei: Can an artist change society?
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's provocative work spotlights human rights and pushes government boundaries.
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"His art truly serves the people," says Lee Ambrozy, whose book "Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009" has just been published by MIT Press. The blog gradually became "more daring and inflammatory," Ms. Ambrozy says, and was widely accessible, reaching all corners of the nation, which made it "a troublesome issue for the central government."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Weiwei: Artist and provocateur
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Ai's audacity in calling the regime to account "is absolutely in his blood," Munroe explains. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet and standard-bearer of the Communist Revolution. But in 1957 he ran afoul of party orthodoxy and was declared an enemy of the people, sent to the Gobi Desert, and forced to clean public latrines for "reeducation."
Ai Weiwei remembers the hardship of 20 years in exile, where the family literally made their own bricks to construct their dwelling in an earthen pit.
Although the family was declared "rehabilitated" in 1976 and allowed to return to Beijing after Mao Zedong's death, Ai left for New York in 1981 seeking freedom. When he returned to China in 1993, he introduced conceptual art, such as his 1994 Coca-Cola urn, where he painted the corporate logo on a Han Dynasty urn, a slap at globalization.
China's pride in Ai's international reputation turned sour when he called for a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics, which he termed "a fake smile China is putting on for the rest of the world." Even though he'd helped design the National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest"), he decried the hoopla of the Games as disguising the regime's greed and repression.
When the 2008 earthquake struck Sichuan Province, killing 70,000, Ai changed from a prankster/provocateur to a cyberactivist. He launched a "citizen investigation" via his blog, recruiting hundreds of volunteers to collect names of children who died when their schools collapsed due to flimsy construction caused by corruption. When he appeared to testify in a related case, he was beaten by authorities. Only emergency surgery saved his life.
Alison Klayman, a filmmaker preparing a documentary on the project, says the government's denial of responsibility in the tragedy "radicalized him." His blog posts "got a lot of attention domestically and not just [in] the art community but [from] waitresses, parents, and schoolteachers. He touched a lot of people."
Ai transformed his activism into art with "So Sorry," consisting of 9,000 children's backpacks in vibrant colors. Arrayed on the facade of Munich's Haus der Kunst in 2009, they spelled out "She lived happily in this world for seven years," an epitaph for her lost child uttered by a Sichuan mother.
A work recently shown at the Tate Modern in London deals with the relation of the individual to the masses. In "Sunflower Seeds," Ai filled the vast Turbine Hall with 100 million, hand-crafted porcelain replicas of the tiny seeds. The number, five times the population of Beijing but only 1/16th the population of China, gave a sense of the enormous scale of the PRC's humanscape.