His name is Ai Weiwei and his outspoken stance on human rights in China has earned him an international following. But that same defiance has led to him being arrested and harassed by Chinese authorities.
“The future of China will affect the future of the world. But it’s not a pretty picture here,” he says.
This summer, his exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What” will be many Canadians first chance to see the work of the dissident artist when it comes to the Art Gallery of Ontario. A mixture of small pieces, large installations and photographs, the exhibition takes viewers on a journey through his life and politics.
Ai Weiwei grew up in the midst of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. His father, a poet, was exiled for political reasons and the family was forced to follow. Childhood for Ai Weiwei was spent in what he describes as a kind of military labour camp.
“It’s very limited; the food, there’s no electricity, and the whole home almost have nothing. Maybe just a blanket or you know, a stove,” he says. “My father would never let us also become an artist. Because he’s under such punishment only because he’s an artist.”
But the young Ai Weiwei pursued art anyway. In the early 1980s, he fled China to study design in New York. As a young man, he became drawn to the underground art scene and the anti-establishment movements that came with it.
“I went to study with them because I wanted to escape from the very heavy political condition at that time we were all in. So art can set up new rules.”
Returning to China as an architect, Ai Weiwei became increasingly vocal against Chinese authorities.
In May of 2008, a devastating earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province killing thousands. Countless children were crushed after shoddily constructed school buildings, erected with a technique dubbed ‘tofu construction’, were destroyed.
China’s lack of accountability for the tragedy was too much for Ai Weiwei to ignore.
“Of course the officials wouldn’t give us any answers, so I initiated and organized a citizen investigation. And we started to organize people from the internet and start collecting names of those deaths,” he says. “We found about four or five thousand names of the dead students. And we published it on the internet.”
That blog post put Ai Weiwei in the crosshairs of Chinese authorities, as he continued his relentless investigation of the tragedy. One night while visiting the quake ravaged area, his hotel room was rushed in by police officers. He was badly beaten and arrested.
On April 3rd, 2011 Ai Weiwei was taken and held in a Chinese secret detention centre. After 81 days and a massive campaign of international protests, he was released but without his passport. Yet despite these hardships, prison has not deterred him from freely expressing himself.
“China is a society of people not trained to express themselves in public. And, I think I can use my own act to help people to understand this is possible.”
Coming to the AGO August 17, the artwork in his exhibition is Ai Weiwei’s personal expression of his situation in China.
A pile of 3200 porcelain crabs, He Xie, is used to represent censorship and individual freedom. Hu Xie means river crab but is also a homonym for harmony- the term used by the Chinese government when it censors the internet in the name of cultural harmony.
A piece called “Straight” is made from 38 tonnes of rebar taken from the wreckage of the Sichuan earthquake and straightened by the artist as a comment on the faulty architecture that caused so much death.
There are also ancient Chinese urns dipped in bright colors and even life-size photographs of him smashing one, representing the need to transform and rebuild Chinese culture.
By using art to stand up for human rights and freedom of expression, Ai Weiwei has been called a dissident, an activist, and an inspiration. But he sees himself very differently.
“I’m not a brave man. I’m kind of timid even,” he admits. “I catch a lot of attention. And it tells people this kind of control; trying to limit individuals’ freedom and trying to really erase all those different voices is not possible.”
© 2013 Shaw Media