Ai Weiwei: on Dissent

In 2009, Ai Weiwei began posting the names of the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake the previous year on his blog. Weiwei had personally visited the district to document these names from speaking with locals. What he found was a disproportionate amount of school children who perished because of poorly built schools. The Chinese government had attempted to cover this up.

Later that year, Ai Weiwei would take 9 thousand colorful children’s backpacks, reflective of the amount of deaths, and created a mural on the wall of the Haus der Kunst in Germany. In bright colors he spelled out:

“for seven years she lived happily on this earth,”

a quote from one victim’s mother.

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Remembering (2009)

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the son of poet Ai Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist Party until the Anti-Rightist campaign the year Weiwei was born. The family was sent to rural Northern China to hard labor until the death of Mao. In college he cofounded an avant-garde art group, and in 1980 relocated to New York City, where he became friends with other visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and studied Dadaist Marcel Duchamp closely.

Duchamp became famous for his “ready-made” work, or taking pre-made objects and changing them someone to create a piece of art. This is something Weiwei would replicate in his own career.

In 1993, Weiwei returned to Beijing where he stayed for some years—sometimes by government mandate. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days by Chinese authorities based on bogus tax-evasion charges and was barred from leaving the country (He has lived in Berlin since 2015). Still, that didn’t keep him down.

Ai Weiwei is one of the most visible contemporary artists, despite having been under a travel restriction and spending extended time behind the Chinese internet firewall. He is known as being a iconoclast, or a destroyer of images or culture. One of his most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a 4,000 year old Han dynasty urn and it smashing to pieces.

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Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995-2004)

A major theme of his work is dissent— against censorship, oppressions, and the rejection of traditions.

He is a vanguard of social media, going so far as to say that:

“the Internet and social media have become the only forms of democracy in China.”

On Twitter and his blog, he is boldly outspoken on the importance of free speech and the empowering aspect of social media. Most of his Twitter posts are those made in solidarity with various world protests. After the Chinese government fined him 2.4 million dollars (in US amounts) after that “tax evasion” thing, over 30,000 people donated 1.4 million from donors via the internet. In just a week. Weiwei has even described waking up and finding money folded into airplanes that were sent over his courtyard wall.

In China, where the government pushes relentlessly forward into the future, Weiwei reminds us to take a step back. With his art he employs hundreds of people in China to use traditional porcelin techniques to make millions and millions of sunflower seeds, which he then encourages museum visitors to take with them; he takes antiques that would be lost to an attic and makes them into a complicated, visual web.

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Sunflower Seeds (2013)

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Bang (2013)

(The sunflower seeds were an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, and the 886 stools an installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale)

Part of why I love Ai Weiwei is that his work is not just about the study of a space or an object or even a simple theme. His work explores an entire culture and what it means to both inherent a legacy and be part of the future. The world is pretty absurd, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His work is reflective of China and also his own whimsical nature.

In contemporary, post-internet art, the idea of an artwork is key. Weiwei said he used to work in hotel rooms and airports more than an actual studio. There is no artist today who has more effectively co-opted the internet for art’s sake than Ai Weiwei. With the ubiquitous nature of social media, the artist can rarely just be an artist. Weiwei is an artist, of course, but also an activist, influencer, and idea factory.

His art is bold and unapologetic—exactly how he is.

Further Watching:

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We Need Art

 

As my University’s multi-million dollar science building takes shape, I reminded more than ever of the importance of the arts in our lives. In school we are taught about the importance of STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—and that if we go into these fields we will be rewarded with job opportunities galore. The relentless emphasis leaves out the arts, which are good for more than just aesthetic pleasures. Everyone, from law students to engineers to painters, can learn from art.

With art in our lives we think deeper, dream wider, and feel more profoundly. It affects how we view the world and fellow humans. “As the digital age unfolds, visual literacy increasingly impacts how we live, where we go, and the choices we make throughout life,” said Patricia Franklin, the spokesperson for the National Arts Education Association. “[The arts] guide students their cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

Art provides a much needed break from the monotonous routines of our daily lives. The arts are a multifaceted experience—imagine getting chills when seeing a great work in person, patrons weeping before Michelangelo’s David, or the critical thinking skills required when viewing something that makes you think “What is that supposed to be?”

STEM takes focus in our education, and this is motivated by a fear that the US is falling behind in technology sectors. However, art education actually improves critical thinking—studies by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies show that students involved in art score higher on standardized tests.

The STEM sector doesn’t completely lack creativity: makerspaces are one example. However, makerspaces still often focus on just STEM technology. STEM education will surely help us fix some of the world’s most complicated problems, but the focus is still on literal interpretations of the world rather than the metaphysical perspective of art.

Every day I see articles titled with some variation of “Top Grossing College Majors” or “Best Majors to Get a Job.” These kinds of articles send the message that a good salary is the most important quality of a future job. Unfortunately, this propagates a superficial view of the world where money, rather than depth of experience, is the ultimate key to happiness. A global survey from the World Economic Forum states economic opportunity and unemployment is one of the top concerns of Millennials around the world.

In Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum performs research on the importance of art education, particularly in K-12. The educational programming is called Thinking Through Art and utilizes a form of teaching known as VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies. The focus is placed upon “looking” skills, like observation and inference. The popularity of this approach in museum teaching is due to its emphasis on transferable skills over content, meaning that someone like an engineer or computer scientist can benefit.

“The VTS curriculum [is] designed… to teach viewers how to make their own meaning from something that, at first glance, may have seemed completely strange,” said Peggy Burchenal, the Curator of Education at the museum.

“The importance of an art education goes beyond the technical skills gained from hours of work with skilled professionals, [such as] the ability to brainstorm, work as a team, and build off critique,” said Dominque Guinez, a senior animation student at Lesley University College of Art and Design.

There are so many opportunities for the almost 250,000 college students in the Boston Metropolitan area to experience the arts. Three major art museums—The Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—regularly hold after-hours programming aimed towards college students and there is free admission for most local students. For instance, during the early fall the ICA holds yoga lessons and parties on its deck. In addition, both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet have volunteer programs that allow students to see shows for free or at extremely discounted prices.

The Boston arts community is active and accessible to students. The arts provide valuable skills that involve more critical thinking than memorizing a formula or regurgitating information on a test. The arts teach us how to think for ourselves. They may not always get the money or attention they deserve, but they remain important. Even if you are just a temporary resident of Boston, take advantage of what is available. The effects are longer lasting than you may realize.

Art Gang ASCO

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You know the stereotypes: all you Hispanic American kids are in gangs. They ride around East LA with their guns and their colors, contributing nothing to society.

Surprise surprise, not everyone agrees with that stereotype.

ASCO was an art collective active from between 1972-1987. They were a bunch of artists, kids really, living in LA. They’re (more or less) associated with the Chicano art movement, although they certainly focus more on contemporary Chicano culture rather than pre-Columbian stuff. The core group was four friends: Harry Gamboa Jr., Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro, Willie Herron, and Patssi Valdez.

They were performance artists. They were provocative. They didn’t give a fuck.

ASCO were the stuff of dreams for me when I wanted to go to art school and be a real artist. Young people are constantly told that their ideas are invalid, and frankly, by the time I was a high school senior I was just done with art conventions. I wanted to do whatever I wanted– things that weren’t pretty or technical. I wanted to do things that were purposefully incomplete or ugly– things that inspired asco, meaning to inspire nausea.

As the story goes, Harry Gamboa Jr. was at the LA County Museum of Art, and upon finding no Chicano artists, went knocking on doors. He was told that Chicano don’t make art— they were in gangs. So he and his friends (after a youthful bout of minor vandalism) decided to start ASCO– an art gang.

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Which– is just so cool.

Their weapons weren’t guns or knives, they were their bodies and images appropriated from the media. ASCO, like Cindy Sherman, staged fake film stills, trying to sell the representation they forced as reality, sometimes even trying to get the media to show their fake crime scenes.

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I think a lot of young people can take a lot away from ASCO. They were kids, yeah, but that didn’t stop them from fighting against “the Man” for fair representation. Frankly, the whole teen-rebellion bit is pretty romantic.

The PAFA // Field Trip

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; March 17; Processions, the art of Norman Lewis


 

march20on20washingtonOn the afternoon of March 17 (a Thursday), I stumbled out of bed at noon with the leftovers of yesterday’s headache and an awful night’s sleep to visit the PAFA, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was an odd crowd that day– on one hand there was a group of incredibly loud school children with clipboards who had come to learn and draw, and on the other hand a group of frowning old people. Although the children were loud and filled the museum with the kind of noise it ought not have, I was charmed and pleased that they possessed the opportunity to visit the museum at all.

I was at the museum because I had an assignment to visit the Norman Lewis exhibit. Norman Lewis was a painter in the mid 20th century, who although was prolific during his life, is often left out of modern art history. It’s quite sad, but the PAFA has compiled a comprehensive exhibit of his work.

My own personal aesthetics led me away from his more representative work (as much as one gets with someone associated closely with abstract expressionism) and towards the large-scale abstraction. I like large, bright things. I tend to favor color over form and stratification over the X composition of his more celebrated work.

Norman Lewis was loathe to admit it, but a large chunk of his work was politically charged. The PAFA exhibit is curated by theme, so all the Civil Rights works are grouped together and as a whole they are the most striking of his work. Sitting on a bench between Alabama, 1960 and A Journey to an End, I was unsettled, to say the least. And American Totem is the star of the show. It’s encased in glass in such a way that if I were a few inches taller, I would be wearing the white hood.

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Freaky.

Like all art, it’s better to see the work in person. The Norman Lewis runs for about another week or two longer, if you’re in the Philadelphia area and can come see it. The PAFA is free on Sunday to everyone during the exhibition run and all the time to students attending colleges in the area. Lewis really was a wonderful painter, and his strokes should be soon up close and personal. Plus, the PAFA is a wonderful little museum and is much easier to get to than the Fine Arts Museum. Oh, and there’s a cafe attached that sells good lattes.

Field Trip! Wilma Theater, Philadelphia

Staying in my dorm all day is lousy, so I try to take myself on field trips around the city as something to do. Solo trips can be fun!

The school was kind enough to pay for a ticket to see Antigone at the Wilma Theater in Center City, Philadelphia. It’s kind of notorious for being an “artsy” theater, which, yeah. I’d agree with that. However, I’m into that kind of thing. My theater director in high school spent a lot of time dragging us around Boston to see shows, and we certainly saw some weird ones (Shockheaded Peter, anyone?)

The Wilma is beautiful. The facade itself harkens back to the past thirty years and is lovely, but I do wish the lobby was a bit bigger. Especially because they didn’t start seating until nearly 8, when the show was set to begin (they also specified no late seating, meaning most people were well early and had to stand around waiting). In the theater itself (holds 300) there’s not a bad seat in the house, and the light and sound systems are superb.

If you’ve never seen or read a more conventional version of Antigone, you probably would have no idea what was happening. In fact, the translation was so different– the performance is in both English and Greek– I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening and I read the play two days before I saw it. At times it certainly tries too hard to be unique and some very odd artistic choices are made. Spoilers, there’s a lot of spitting. While most people I talked to didn’t understand this choice at all, I (think?) I did. It’s a physical play, tackling the innately physical nature of suffering.

I could be making this all up, but we try to make sense out of what we see.

I was intrigued by the company, though. Overall, the performances were strong (even if Antigone suffered from Constantly Yelling Syndrome). Even better, the Wilma currently has a bold initiative to make theater affordable, meaning you can get tickets for $25 (general public) or $10 (students and theater professionals).

In conclusion: the Wilma is worth a visit even if to just appreciate the theater itself. It’s cheap as hell to see a play, and even if it’s weird and you don’t like, chances are a night out on the town will be fun anyways. To see the full catalog of shows, tickets, etc., visit the Wilma’s website.


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