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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds

Ai Weiwei is probably the Chinese artist that is most well-known in the West. His work spans all media of art, from sculpture to painting to writing to film to archetictural design. He is one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2011. You may know him as one of the designers of the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing, affectionately called the Bird's Nest.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - Ai Weiwei's international influence, he was arrested this past April in Beijing as a political & social dissident. He has not been heard from since, but the Chinese government has recently said that “Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

For three years, he maintained a blog where he openly criticized the Chinese government. It was shut down in 2009. You can still go to the site, but you will only see a dead fly there. Before his writings were removed however, they were compiled into a book, which you can get here.

While I was in London recently, I had the opportunity to see one of his installations, Sunflower Seeds. Millions of bits of porcelain shaped & painted by skilled craftspeople to look like real sunflower seeds were spread across the floor at the Tate Modern. Seeing all of those seeds, so much alike yet so individual, makes you think of what it means to be a part of the whole - to be an individual in a sea of individuals.

Originally, visitors were able to interact with the seeds, walking on them & touching them, but by the time I got there, that was no longer possible. The museum said that the dust from so much playing around with the porcelain was causing a health hazard. Plus, people were probably pocketing some of the seeds to take home with them, which I might have done as well, the delinquent that I am.

Here is a fascinating 15-minute video about the making of the seeds.

Even though Ai Weiwei has been removed from public view, his works continue to make the rounds. You can see a new installation in London at the Lisson Gallery, which to Western eyes might look like a lovely set of animals depicting the Chinese zodiac, but to China is an example of deeply subversive social commentary.

It's hard for Westerners to understand why someone like Ai Weiwei is seen as such a threat in China - what harm can zodiac animals & sunflower seeds really be? It's just one man's expression of his opinion, right? One commenter on the Time Magazine site tries to explain it:

Americans like the idea of democracy. Everyone likes democracy, because it is a luxury. Americans have the luxury, and good for you. However, other countries might not share the same history advantage as you do, they did not found an entire country just by having people moved to a new continent and took over it and declared freedom( in the process maybe kicked out the natives and build the foundation trough slavery). Other countries have a burden of history, poverty and responsibilities that comes with their history. Americans of this generation are born with the idea that freedom is a given, but it is really earned. Ai Weiwei went to America for America dream when he was young and sworn he would never go back to China. He came to the States and failed and eventually dropped school and had a truly free life of just hanging around in New York. He might get the idea that democracy is just around there you can get it you just have to ask for it. But it is really earned and many Chinese elites are working hard to both keep China stable and build up the framework for a freer society, as well as lifting poverty. That's why I suggest many people are more eligible in this role than Ai, who is a star artists who represent an idea the media is in favor of. Sometimes, freedom is really overrated, responsibility is what needed in China. Look back 20 years in China, the government painfully sacrificed democracy and individual benefit, but in return lifted 500 million people out of poverty. It is easy to be an activist, but hard to be an realist

1 comment:

Nancy Lewis said...

Update: Ai Weiwei's wife was able to see him for 15 minutes: