Ai Weiwei’s activism is a growing movement, and his poignant, overt and sometimes outlandish exhibitions are cropping up abundantly across Europe. The focus of the exhibits is on advocating the freedom of information, and the freedom of peoples. Ai has fought perilously against oppressive Chinese authorities to share his ideas and advocacy with the world via various online platforms including Twitter, Facebook and blog sites, which are often banned or heavily censored throughout China.
Ai’s art emphasises the individual over state apparatus and authorities, honing in on personal experiences often scuffed over by governments and media outlets. Curated whilst he was still trapped within Chinese borders, the Ai Weiwei Royal Academy of Arts exhibition listed the names of school children who were victim to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake as a result of corruption and poor building construction, and displayed visuals documenting Ai’s traumatic 81 day incarceration in a Chinese prison.
Ai’s recent exhibition at Amsterdam’s vibrant photography museum, Foam, featured thousands of images of refugees, captured as he and his team travelled through camps across the Mediterranean, including Syria, Turkey and Israel. Again, the emphasis was on acknowledging individual plights. Photos covered the walls from floor to ceiling, making it difficult to take every photo into account: a reflection of the extent of the crisis and the problem of understanding it’s full scope.
Numerous narratives surround the migrant crisis; of leaders, of border control, of war and dislocation, of vessels lost at sea, of humanitarian actors, of citizens… but most important are the narratives of those facing the harsh conditions of migrant life, those who have fallen into a dark crevice of the earth which at times offers little hope. Ai Weiwei’s work turns the crisis into individuals, ordinary humans who happen to have been displaced and thrown into unexpected circumstances. The art (otherwise construed as political activism) asks people to reflect on an issue which may often feel too far away from home, too removed from a seemingly stabilised world.
Outspoken and deliberately intrusive, Ai Weiwei’s work destabilises the notion of psychological and materialistic securities, building a bridge of information across borders. In 2014, Ai Weiwei came to the UK’s Blenheim Palace: grand, stately rooms dressed by British nobility were juxtaposed with various conspicuous Ai works, which infilt
rated the otherwise stable and untouchable norms of the majestic environment. A sea of He Xie crabs sprawled on a deep red carpet, photos of Ai giving the finger appeared in the drawing room next to prized, precise paintings of dukes and politicians, a chandelier of glass crystals christened the impressive palace hallway, and round, blue ceramic objects nestled in to Capability Brown’s garden. A bizarre ‘East meets West’ irony took hold of the palace, and if it made unsuspecting visitors uncomfortable, something was working.
Ai’s string of exhibitions inform the onlooker of multiple, simultaneous truths and request a mindset that looks beyond states, beyond borders, and beyond normative environments. A mindset that remains open, not forgetting the atrocities occurring behind the closed door.
By Robyn Kelly-Meyrick