Chinese social activist and artist Ai Weiwei says in his blog that “modernity cannot exist without freedom of speech.”
He uses his art and the Internet to exert his right to free speech and to protect the rights of others.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art is currently hosting a large exhibition of Ai’s works called “According to What?”
Ai is famous for helping design the Beijing National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He had high hopes for the Olympics until May 2008 when an earthquake in the Sichuan province took the lives of more than 5,000 children because of poorly-constructed schoolhouses.
In his blog, he wrote, “If we had diverted one-thousandth of these resources to Sichuan, those schools would never have collapsed.”
After this tragedy, he launched a citizen’s investigation to gather the names of every lost child so they would be remembered.
This brought him to the Chinese government’s attention, and he has been under strict surveillance since. He was detained for three months in 2011, and his passport has not been returned to him, preventing him from leaving China.
As a child, Ai and his family were exiled because of his father’s controversial poetry, and his father was forced to do labor. Ai grew up without much, but his parents gave him room to create.
The young artist moved to New York City in the 1970s and immersed himself in American culture and life.
“He became increasingly interested in artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp,” said Sarah Green, IMA curator of contemporary art.
These artists greatly influenced him as he began to question the ready-made, everyday, useful objects put on display.
Ai worked with a carpenter to create “Table With Two Legs on the Wall.” He used a wooden table from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and rebuilt it so that two legs seem to be climbing up the wall.
Ai asked what the “ready-mades” of China were. He decided neolithic vases were a good representation.
Ancient vases in a museum exhibit are not shocking, so to create controversy he dipped some vases in industrial paint and photographed himself dropping an urn, destroying it.
The question what do we keep and what do we discard on the road to modernity is a question that comes up over and over again in Ai’s work.
He is not only rejecting the old but creating a new work in the process.
“Forever” is made up of 42 bicycles stacked together in a circle. In this piece, Ai takes away the bicylcle’s use, commenting on the change that has come to China as cars have become more and more popular.
“Kippe” is a German word that means “precarious balance.”
In this work, Ai used parallel gymnastic bars and wood from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples to create a block.
Green said this brings up two memories for Ai. First, the playgrounds at his schools growing up had parallel gymnastic bars and a basketball hoop. Second, Ai grew up in a cold part of China, and his father always had beautifully-stacked firewood in the front yard.
This piece needs to be reassembled every time it is displayed in a new setting. The exhibit is full of big, heavy pieces that take a lot of work to assemble.
“The team at the IMA has worked very hard to assemble this exhibit, as well as to create interactive iPads and a participatory website in which you can hear directly from the artist through video response,” Green said.
When asked “What inspires you to be an activist?”, Ai responded in a video.
“As an artist, I’m privileged to have expression as my career or as my profession,” he said. “So by fighting for these rights, I’m also helping those people who are not familiar with those issues and helping those people who have no voice.”
Green said one of the show’s most powerful pieces is called “Straight” and is made of 38 tons of steel rebar salvaged from the Sichuan province after the May 2008 earthquake.
Ai gathered the rebar and worked with metal workers to laboriously straighten each piece. He then created an undulating landscape with a fault line.
“It is a powerful reminder of the earthquake,” Green said. “The back wall has a full list of the names of the over 5,000 children who died, along with their ages and schools.”
Sophomore Amanda King, who hopes to work in a museum after graduating, went to the exhibit.
“I learned a lot from it,” she said. “I thought it was great. I didn’t know about all the political turmoil he had, and it was really interesting to see how he incorporated all that into his artwork.”
The exhibit will be at the IMA through June 21 and will then move to Toronto.
The exhibit is free for IMA members, $12 for the general public and $6 for children ages 7-17.