No-one says fuck the system quite like Ai Weiwei, a bold Beijing-based artist. Working the mediums of photography, fine art, sculpting, architecture, (you name it, he’s probably done it) to create controversial thought, push the buttons of the Chinese regime, and fight for the freedom of public opinion. The artist activist makes it clear that art cannot, and should not, be censored.
Weiwei’s artistic philosophy rests upon his conviction that being able to share ideas and hear different views on what’s going on in the world is “the foundation for civil society.” In a PBS interview, Weiwei described the political situation in China, and its effects on creative expression, stating that, “[In China], we are still living under a very restricted dictatorship. We are still dealing with a very restricted control on freedom of expression.”
Despite the challenges an artist in China might face, Weiwei is committed to creating meaningful artwork that fights against a controlling regime. In a censored society, Weiwei provocatively, yet poetically, challenges those viewing his art to consider and question things such as social structures from a different and often uncomfortable angle. Usually, his efforts result in government retaliation.
One of his most controversial pieces followed the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of schoolrooms collapsed, killing at least 5,000 children. The incident resulted in accusations of corruption and patterns of faulty architecture. Weiwei used his artwork to publicly exhibit his opinions when political censors discouraged media from publishing articles that suggested that Chinese schools were poorly built.
To voice his opinion, he sculpted catastrophe into art, collecting twisted steel from the wreckage, straightening it out, and forming it into a long rolling topography titled “Straighten.”
Symbolizing the same event, Weiwei created a massive serpent out of children’s backpacks inspired by the piles of abandoned bags he saw by the wreckage upon his visit.
It’s works like these that have led Weiwei to numerous beatings by the police and, in 2011, imprisonment. After being arrested on unclear grounds, he told The Art Newspaper that “the accusations [were] ridiculous, [but] it’s more frightening to be thrown into the hands of people who will never understand what you are trying to say.”
His art is dangerous, and he acknowledges that. “Life is never guaranteed to be safe,” he says in his documentary, Never Sorry. To the government’s dismay, Weiwei continues to produce artwork.
Although opportunities to display his art in China are few and far between, Weiwei has found a devoted audience in Canada, where his message of resistance has been heard and applauded. His work was recently featured in Toronto’s “Nuit Blanche” exhibition, and is also currently on display at the Art Gallery of Canada. Although his art is in Canada, he has not been able to leave Beijing since 2011. Even from there, he is still making his statement.
Rachel Pagdin is from Kelowna, BC. She is working towards her B.Sc., but when she is not in class, she is all about the arts.