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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ai Wei Wei: "Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward."

Sometimes you see something that makes almost everything else seem a bit lame in comparison. The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy  for example.

Ai Wei Wei fills eleven rooms in the exhibition and he hits all the high notes; surveillance, control, censorship, development and destruction, corruption, family, and justice.

Different materials are used, family history is invoked, social media is exploited and the work is both accessible and aggressive. It's not half-hearted. It hits its targets and it does have targets.

And in amongst it all there are some works that bring tears to your eyes. The first is Straight. This is a room filled with 96 tons of straightened rebars - these are the bars that are put into concrete and tied at both ends to add stability and strength to a concrete beam and so to a building.

And if you don't bother to tie the rebars off at the end, if you don't attach the ends of the rebars (and so the concrete beam) to a wall or another beam, they don't add strength to a building. The building becomes liable to collapse

So that's why so many buildings collapsed when there was an earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan Province. The most tragic thing is the buildings that were most likely to collapse were school buildings. In Sichuan school buildings the rebars weren't tied, the concrete used was substandard. Corners had been cut, standards dropped, money had gone into the pockets of corrupt provincial and party officials.

Children died because of it, almost ten thousand of them. That's the effect of corruption and greed. It's not a zero sum game. People die because of it.

That is what Straight is about. You go into the room, and there's a crowd of people standing around a television watching a twenty minute film showing the destruction, the bodies, the abandoned school backpacks (which made another Ai installation), the venal officials, the sobbing parents, and the appalling construction.

Then there's the work taken to reclaim the bent rebars (if they had been properly tied they would have snapped - the fact that they were bent is indicative of the corrupt building standards) and the banging of them back into shape. It's the documentation of an artwork that has its roots in the most tragic form of reality. It doesn't get more real than this. It's documentary art.

That was the film, which everybody who was there watched. There were some pictures of the ruins. There was the mass of rebars. And there on the walls are the names of those who died (Ai's team collected over 5,000 names. He was brutally beaten by police when these names were first published in China). For these dead children, the straightened bars are a memorial formed from the sweat of Ai Wei Wei's bar-straightening workers. For the provincial officials who traded the lives of children for  a new apartment or a designer watch, they are an accusation.

The other great work was SACRED. This detailed Ai Wei Wei's arrest and disappearnce for 81 days as he was held incommunicado by the Chinese state. He was imprisoned, interrogated, and watched in intimate detail, two guards standing over him for all this time without a break - when he ate, when he slept, when he showered, when he went to the bathroom. The guards would always be there.

So you go in the room, and there are 6 rusted metal containers. There are peep holes at the end, and peep holes on the top. Look in the peep holes and it's a diorama of Ai Wei Wei's imprisonment. You're made to work a little for your view - and it is quite shocking to always have these guards standing over their prisoner, who is rendered in very lifelike detail.

On the wall, there is Ai Wei Wei Twitter/Surveillance wallpaper. You're encouraged to photograph, to use social media, to tweet and facebook and Snapchat. Because for Ai Wei Wei that has made a difference (both in the past and right now). In that regard, it puts some other exhibitions to shame. No photography - and so no social media! Really? What exactly are you afraid of?

The exhibition is an art exhibition, and so it's about communication, and part of that communication is about using emotion, injustice, and striving for change to reach as many people as possible. It's activism on a grand scale, that works in the most direct and accessible way possible. There is anger in there, a sense of Ai Wei Wei  (and others - this is not a lone exercise) standing up for what he believes in. And he has suffered for it, so there's braveness in there, along with a healthy dose of aggression.

It's an example of what art can be. No bullshit, no compromise, no self-censorship. It's an example to us all.


Carlos S-V said...

here is another point of view.. it's in Spanish but hope you can translate or understand....


colin pantall said...

Well, it's a view!