Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his  unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

Continue reading “Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics”

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Iron Tree 1

‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.

Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.

Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.

FairytaleAi Weiwei, Fairytale-1001 Chairs

Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit.  You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996).  For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness.  As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual.  The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.

Fairytale detail

The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).

For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts.  Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932.  It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence.  One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:

I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
This country
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering 
And most venerable people

Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:

For my sake,
Poet, arise.

And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.

Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.

I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.

I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.

Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.

Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.

Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.

Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.

Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.

Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,

Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.

Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …

Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei  was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:

I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.

Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979.  These are the opening and closing stanzas:

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
[…]
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?

Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.

Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2012. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty WildeMap of China, 2008 made from wood reclaimed from Qing dynasty temples

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.  On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008.  In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.

ai-weiwei-lantern-2014-courtesy-yorkshire-sculpture-park-photo-jonty-wilde

Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai  began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns.  Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’

Iron Tree 2

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013

One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.

But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940

Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in  2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.

Iron Tree detail 2 Iron Tree detail 1 Iron Tree 3

Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details

The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts.  ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.

Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.  Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act.  Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei

Footnote

It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed.  Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.

See also

 

Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy

Ai Weiwei:  throwing stones at autocracy

There are a lot of cats hanging around Ai Weiwei’s  family compound in Beijing.  One of them has actually learned how to open doors.  In Alison Klayman’s superb first documentary, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry, Ai remarks that the difference between human beings and cats is that when cats open a door, they don’t close it behind them. Klayman’s film is a celebration of a subversive artist who turns resistance into a creative act. Continue reading “Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy”

Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

The artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei disappeared into detention on 3 April and no-one has heard from him since.  He was stopped from boarding a flight at Beijing airport last Sunday and escorted away by police, together with his friend Wan Tao.  Earlier that week, Ai announced that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

Until Wednesday, the Chinese authorities refused to comment on his whereabouts, despite calls for his release from the UK, the United States and the European Union.  The artist’s detention is part of the toughest crackdown on activists and dissidents in China for a decade, with at least 24 people criminally detained, three more formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen missing.

China is still fuming over the award last autumn of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  He was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.

Ominously, an editorial the other day in the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to confirm the worst fears about Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei […] has been close to the red line of Chinese law. As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in which he summoned up the image of an electric storm, the thunder ‘tolling for the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake, and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’.  A year or so earlier, in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, he had asked, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Last week, with Ai Weiwei ‘misplaced inside a jail’, Dylan meekly performed a set in Beijing which had been scrutinised, censored and approved by the Chinese Culture Ministry. He failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, and kowtowed to the Chinese authorities’ insistence that he not perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Inexcusable.

Writing  in The Independent, Joan Smith noted that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented countless human rights abuses in China, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, even the UK Foreign Office was compelled to list China among ‘major countries of concern’ in its annual human rights report. Yet the diplomatic and economic policy of cozying up to China continues, with, for example, David Cameron visiting Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize.  Smith continues:

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free…

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008, perhaps Liverpudlians favourite artwork in that year’s Biennial. An article in The Guardian last year explained how Ai’s attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

To close, here’s Ai Weiwei in uncompromising mood in a photo posted on his blog, now shut down by the Chinese authorities.

 Footnote:  Ai Weiwei was finally released on 22 June, after 81 days in detention.

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern

 

We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.  I have my doubts about this work.  It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.

Most critics have been appreciative of this work.  I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the  fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.

But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting.  That certainly seems like a grim irony.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.

Links

You can read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s review in full here.  An earlier post about Ai Weiwei is here.  And I loved Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.

Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008. I was reminded of this stunning installation, perhaps Liverpudlians’ favourite from the Biennial, reading an informative piece about its creator, Ai Weiwei in today’s Guardian.

The article notes that Tate Modern has commissioned Weiwei to fill its Turbine Hall later this year, but goes on to focus on his delicate relationship with the Chinese government, resulting from his angry and sustained denunciations of officialdom through interviews, documentaries and the internet. The article explains that his attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

Ai Weiwei says his father’s experiences have left him with a sense of duty

To speak for the generation, or generations, who didn’t have a chance to speak out … And I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is OK, to speak out.

Remembering Tiananmen Square

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square…

Watched an excellent film on BBC2  last night in which Kate Adie returned to the scene of one of her most memorable assignments: reporting the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Beijing on the 3rd and 4th June, 1989. She was one of the few Western reporters out on the streets then, and witnessed the killings at close quarters. In the film we saw footage from her reports in 1989, as well as the testimonies of eyewitnesses and victims who she met undercover this spring.

One of the 1989 dissidents Adie spoke to was Liao Yiwu. When the tanks rolled into Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989 and brutally suppressed the students’ pro-democracy movement, Liao Yiwu was living in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Reacting to events, Liao composed a long poem, Massacre, which portrayed, with stark imagery, the killing of innocent students and residents.

Excerpts from Massacre

(translated by Wen Huang) Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice
Represent the mothers to suffocate the children
Represent children to sodomize the fathers
Represent the wives to murder the husbands
Represent the citizens to bomb the city
Open fire, open fire, open fire
Shoot women, students and children
Shoot workers, teachers and venders
Riddle them with bullets
Aiming at those angry faces, shocking faces, contorted faces, despondent faces and tranquil faces
Shoot with abandon
The fleeting beauty of those faces moving toward you like tidal waves
The eternal beauty of those faces heading toward heaven and hell
The beauty of turning humans into beasts
The beauty of seducing, raping and trampling on your fellow citizens
Eliminate beauty
Wipe out the flowers, forest, school campuses, love, and the pure air
Shoot, shoot and shoot…
I feel good and I feel high
Blow up that head
Burn up the hair and the skin
Let the brain erupt
Let the soul gush out
Splash on the bridge, the fence and the street
Splash toward the sky
Blood turned into stars and stars are running
Heaven and earth have turned upside down
Shiny helmets are like stars
Troops are running out of the moon
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
Humans and stars are falling and running
Indistinguishable, which are humans and which are stars
Troops followed them into the cloud, into cracks on the ground…

We live under bright sunlight
But we have lost our eyesight
We find ourselves on a street, so wide
But no one can take a stride
We stand in a crowd, supposed to be loud
But people open their mouth without sound
We are tortured with thirst
But everyone refuses water.
This unprecedented massacre
Survivors are those bastards.

Also featured in the film was Ai Weiwei, the artist who inspired the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium (though he later distanced himself from it and expressed views fiercely critical of the Olympics) and the creator of the Web of Light in last year’s Liverpool Biennial. An outspoken critic of the government, he has never forgiven them for sending his father into exile during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. Weiwei now lives in China and produces a critical blog. Today Chinese censors are blocking Twitter and other online services, but ChinaGeeks reports that Ai Weiwei’s blog is still up and have translated his latest entry:

Ai Weiwei: Let Us Forget

Let us forget about June 4th, forget this ordinary day. Life has taught us, under totalitarianism, every day is the same. Every day in a totalitarian society is one day, there is no ‘other day’, no ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. We no longer need partial truth, we don’t need partial justice or partial fairness.

Without freedom of speech, without freedom of news, without freedom of elections, we are not people, we do not need to remember. Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.

Let us forget every instance of persecution, every instance of humiliation; every massacre and every cover-up, every lie, every time we are pushed down, every death. Forget every moment of suffering, then forget every moment of forgetting. This is all just so that they, like ‘men of honor’, might ridicule us.

Forget those soldiers who fired on civilians, those students whose bodies were crushed by the treads of tanks, the whistle and scream of bullets and blood on big streets and in the alleyways; a city and a Square without tears. Forget the interminable lies, the rulers hoping everyone has forgotten, forget their cowardess, their evil and ineptitude. We must forget, for they must be forgotten. Only when they’ve been forgotten can [we] exist. For the sake of existing, let us forget.

The report referred to the formation of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by over 303 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in China. The Charter calls for changes to improve human rights in China, including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule.

The photo of the anonymous Tank Man taken in 1989 by Jeff Widener, then a 33-year-old American Associated Press picture editor based in Bangkok, from the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile away through a 400mm lens. The still and motion photography of the man standing alone before a line of tanks reached international audiences overnight. Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin also captured the image.

The Tank Man’s protest

Kate Adie’s BBC reports 1989

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: documentary about the Tiananmen protests, part 1

Links

The Biennial’s Web of Light

The Biennial’s Web of Light

The most striking element of the Biennial this year must be Ai Weiwei’s giant spider web installation – a crystal studded spider with LED lights used to illuminate the web at night like glistening dew. The sculpture spans the entire area of  Exchange Flags.

The Chinese architect designer was inspired by the idea of the spider as one of nature’s master architects. Ai Weiwei was Herzog and de Meuron’s collaborator on Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium.

From the Biennial programme notes:

The spicier is one of nature’s architects, whose ability to weave his silken web provides the means for his survival. Ai Weiwei takes this symbol of creativity, and enlarges it to gigantic proportions, spinning a web of light across the entirety of Liverpool’s Exchange Flags. At the heart of this intricate steel construction is a crystal studded spider, while LED lights strung along the cables allow us to enjoy a paradoxical night-time image of dew glistening in the sun.

Ai has looked to nature for inspiration on previous architectural projects, most notably as Herzog and de Meuron’s collaborator on Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium. But Ai is not so much interested in plays on the natural, more in taking objects and, through a simple intervention (in this case a shift in scale), transforming the familiar into something new and extraordinary, with the result that the idea or image becomes all the more real by virtue of its unreality.

Ai often draws on the* materials of the past, in particular China’s past, for his work, transforming them through assembly, remoulding, or sheer destruction, into present day commentary. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), for example, is a series of black and white photographs documenting the artist doing just that. These works can be read as a direct criticism of decades of cultural suppression and censorship in China. Ai himself spent much of his childhood in the remote province of Xinjiang, where his father, the well-known poet Ai Qing, had been exiled during the Cultural Revolution.

But there’s also a broader, more universal message in these works. They illustrate Ai’s belief in the right for ideas to exist freely, like objects in space. Fairytale, drew considerable attention at Documenta XII (2007). The artist brought 1001 Chinese visitors to Kassel, as well as 1001 Qing dynasty chairs, which were distributed throughout the exhibition’s spaces to provide symbolic points for reflection. The number 1001 was deliberately chosen to emphasise the individual within the group -one person more than a thousand.