Ai Weiwei: According to What?

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Dissident artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) remains relentless in his pursuit of free expression through art, social media, and political protest. For Ai Weiwei there is no clear division between art and politics. For him, art is a vehicle for social change, and a vehicle for the possible. After recently watching the documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I was particularly excited to see his major exhibit, According to What?, currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) until October 27th, 2013.

For those who don’t know, Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists. Through his art he advocates for freedom of expression and places value in individual lives within the totalitarian state. After an earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008 killed more than 5,000 children he has become ever more outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese government. His activism and controversial artwork has led to the seizure of his passport and he is currently not allowed to travel outside of China.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

-Ai Weiwei

In addition to working in a wide range of media, Ai Weiwei utilizes social media to make art and connect with the world. If I wasn’t already so busy, I’d sign up for Chinese language lessons so I could read his twitter feed. For now, I’ll have the artwork from his latest exhibit in Toronto to reflect upon.

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children’s backpacks, commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
This piece demonstrated the different moon phases.
This piece demonstrated the different moon phases.
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Grapes (wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911).
Cat toy.
Cat toy.
Teahouse: these three sculptural forms are made from solid blocks of Pu’er tea grown and harvested in southwest China. Fermented and aged using traditional methods, the tea has been compressed and moulded into the shape of houses, which are surrounded by a field of loose tea leaves. Teahouses were the social centre of traditional Chinese culture.
Teahouse: these three sculptural forms are made from solid blocks of Pu’er tea grown and harvested in southwest China. Fermented and aged using traditional methods, the tea has been compressed and moulded into the shape of houses, which are surrounded by a field of loose tea leaves. Teahouses were the social centre of traditional Chinese culture.
Ai's most controversial work involves altering revered objects, like these paint-covered ancient Chinese vases.
Ai Weiwei’s most controversial work involves altering revered objects, like these paint-covered ancient Chinese vases.
Here Ai Weiwei is dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (part of a photographic triptych).
Here Ai Weiwei is dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (part of a photographic triptych).
Another graffitied urn.
Another graffitied urn.
Ai Weiwei created this piece, Straight, from rebar he recovered from collapsed schoolhouses following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Each mangled piece of rebar was straightened through a laborious process.
Ai Weiwei created this piece, Straight, from rebar he recovered from collapsed schoolhouses following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Each mangled piece of rebar was straightened through a laborious process.
He Xie, or "river crab," consists of more than 3,200 porcelain crabs. "He xie" is also a homophone for the Chinese word for "harmonious," which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan. Today, "he xie" has become an ironic Internet euphemism for official censorship.
He Xie, or “river crab,” consists of more than 3,200 porcelain crabs. “He xie” is also a homophone for the Chinese word for “harmonious,” which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan. Today, “he xie” has become an ironic Internet euphemism for official censorship.
China in the rings of a log.
China in the rings of a log.
Ai Weiwei and me.
Ai Weiwei and me.
The image says it all.
The image says it all.

All Photos by Paul Watkins.

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