My boyfriend and I recently visited the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s one of those exhibits where you walk in and feel immediately like you know the artist on a personal level.
One of the first pieces is the x-ray of Ai Weiwei’s own head after he was struck by a police officer one night. Immediately following this was the movie “Never Sorry” projected on an adjacent wall – a documentary which examines the work of Ai Weiwei (what he’s been through and what continues to drive him). Fearlessness is the obvious theme in his work, particularly in his photography.
Ai Weiwei’s entire career centres around not allowing critical issues to be swept under the rug; his aim is to give a voice to the voiceless (in this case literally – there was a line up of people volunteering to read portions of the list of 5000 children who died in an earthquake due to the poor construction of schools). No topic is off-limits, whether it’s the de-facing of ancient terra-cotta pottery, or the re-purposing of bicycles which have fallen out of use. Every sculpture is a labour of love, and every photograph has been meticulously taken to form part of a larger message.
Powerful, meaningful work that stretches over a lifetime and deserves to be celebrated.
So why was I so uncomfortable?
One of the things that Ai Weiwei has embraced is social media. He openly blogs; he actively tweets; he gives a voice to his daily life and encourages others to get involved. There’s a piece where different people face the camera and say “fuck you” in every language. It really doesn’t get more powerful or subversive – and yet, when it’s anyone other than the artist’s face on film, something important is lost.
For some reason, that genuine passion and frustration with what’s going on in the world can only be found in the eyes of Ai Weiwei. Whether it’s speaking or sculpting or taking a picture, it’s obvious that he’s never compromised a day in his life. He’s constructed a strong personal brand that will no doubt speak to generations for years to come. But his voice will not be able to speak on behalf of those generations, and simply appropriating that brand onto the faces of others seems to dilute the message and move into the realm of sheer anger.
And, despite what many people think, anger is not what Ai Weiwei is all about; he is passionate about his country and about the people in and around his life. But in a world where anger and passion are more and more prominent (and more and more commonly voiced), I worry that the anger is all that people will remember. His art already calls out to you – compels you to understand and consider things that it would be a mistake to forget. But the added volume of social media turns that compelling voice into a scream – and when someone screams at you, all you want to do is cover your ears. We have to begin to be concerned about how we interact with these mediums, and whether or not they are diluting the true experience and message of what we’re trying to say. I think in many ways his avid use of social media has furthered Ai Weiwei’s message. Or has it simply stretched that message – the further its reach, the thinner it becomes?
One of the last pieces was a video/writing booth, where you could speak up and voice your opinion about what was going on (presumably politically) in your life. You could easily look around – see the middle finger in front of the Eiffel Tower, the painted Coca-Cola logo on the ancient pottery, the construction progress photos of the unfinished Olympic sculpture – and summarize a clear and present anger.
Or, instead, you could notice the perfect image of China that he delicately carved into wood assembled from the Qing Dynasty, and know there is something deeper going on – national pride. It’s the kind of pride you can’t fake, and that’s something that should make everyone squirm a little.