[Originally published on Vacay.ca on August 15, 2013]
TORONTO, ONTARIO — An earthquake thundered in Sichuan five years ago, unleashing devastation, a gush of tears, and one man’s torrid imagination. Ninety-thousand people died in the Sichuan disaster; 5,212 of them were children, almost all of whom perished in dilapidated schools built by the government. A few weeks after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei travelled approximately 1,500 kilometres from Beijing to the razed province in south-central China.
“I write every day, sometimes two articles a day,” Ai has said. “In Sichuan, I couldn’t write for a week. It was devasting. I was speechless.”
He was far from powerless, however. Ai took photographs and videos of the ruined towns. Most poignantly, he collected hundreds of knapsacks, which had been left strewn in rubble, the most awful kind of litter you could imagine. The knapsacks belonged to the children whose deaths have inspired Ai to change his world through relentless attempts to make the Chinese government more transparent and accountable.
Ai turned the backpacks into a serpent, a black-and-white polyester statement about what he believes is China’s treacherous treatment of its impoverished citizens and government corruption. The serpent is a symbol thick with meaning in China and Ai’s use of it in this context — with the backpacks representing the blood of the Sichuan children — is his way of shouting, “This is what you really are.”
Made from 883 knapsacks, Snake Ceiling has hovered on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario since this spring. The rest of the “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” exhibit begins its only Canadian appearance this weekend at the Toronto museum. It is a thought-provoking showcase of an artist who is affecting the world while in his prime — a rarity. Ai has gone from mischievous rebel who would photograph his upraised middle finger in front of icons such as the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square to a gutsy critic with a clear focus on doing whatever he can to break China away from its old and anachronistic policies and predilections.
“It’s not often you get to talk about art and the state of the world at the same time,” AGO’s director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum said during a news conference on Wednesday that unveiled the exhibit. “When you can place in front of a community an artist who is struggling to be heard it is an important moment.”
His rebelliousness left Ai under house arrest in Beijing two years ago. That was a bad move by China. Not just for the image of oppression it presents to the world, but for the fact that confining your most outspoken critic to his studio is akin to forcing a teenage hacker to remain locked in his parents’ basement with four desktop computers and unlimited Internet access. Relegated to his studio called 258 Fake, Ai created more provocative art that challenges the Chinese regime he has already embarrassed time and again. The government also detained him for 81 days, citing a range of charges, banned his blog and name from appearing on search engines within China, and confiscated his passport, another act that has served to make a martyr of him. Activists around the world have rallied to raise awareness. A “Free Ai Weiwei” campaign has snaked through the art world and student campuses and into some mainstream outlets. In May, Ai released his first music video, set to the expletive-rich song “Dumbass”that swipes once more at government restrictions.
While Ai’s more sophisticated (re: non-oral) work re-imagines traditional Chinese symbols and materials, his influences are from the west. They include Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, artists whose modern pieces he became familiar with during his 12 years spent in the United States from 1981-93. His art raises universal questions about freedom of expression and human rights in an increasingly globalized world.
“It’s not just for Asians or for the Chinese community, but for all of us living in contemporary times. It speaks fundamentally to issues of our era,” says Mami Kataoka of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, which has brought the exhibit to North America for a five-city tour.
Before leaving for Miami and Brooklyn, New York, Ai’s work will be at the AGO until October 27. The gallery has smartly made attempts to involve the public in the exhibit. The artist’s Chinese Zodiac Heads are sculptures displayed outside of City Hall in the pool at Nathan Phillips Square. They’ve become a talking point as well as a favourite spot for tourist photos. On Sunday, the day the exhibit opens to the public, more than 400 Torontonians will gather to read out the names of the children lost in Sichuan. Ai published their names on the Internet after he and a team of researchers set out to find the truth because the Chinese government refused to give an accurate account of the earthquake’s toll. On September 5, Teitelbaum will have a Skype conversation with Ai and museum guests will be able to watch. The AGO’s Frank restaurant, named after Frank Gehry, features an Ai Weiwei-themed prix fixe menu ($45) that includes hot and sour soup, Peking duck pancake, and glazed pork tenderloin among its choices.
Credit the museum for building awareness of Ai through every means possible. As Teitelbaum notes, this is an exhibit with many levels of importance, one of which includes the impact it will have on you.