Saturday, May 29, 2010

The tool for change

Cube Light, by Ai Weiwei. Photograph: Miguel Villagran. (taken from the guardian)

I wrote the following piece for a Courage Forum in New York in the spring:

Art can sometimes be easily set aside into the supposedly self-contained 'art world'. Such a world can be considered safe in that it is traditionally set within museum walls; it does not invade the 'real world'.

But Ai Weiwei has proved such a viewpoint wrong. His work rather bursts out of any container; it screams. It frightens and threatens the attacked, which of late has been the Chinese government.

As we map out a list of courageous figures, we tend to look to the history of the past rather than of the present. It might be easier to study the past, since we have already acquired the personal distance that is gained with time. With such a distance, we are allowed to analyze the patterns of history with a more neutral eye. It is more challenging to react to the entangled complications of the present: we tend to not yet completely know how to evaluate it, how to react to it, or what to believe. The present is in fact frightening to face.

But there are courageous people, such as Ai, who do not wait for the safety and reassurance that come with personal detachment. They do not wait for history to happen; rather, they help shape that history by following their instincts.

Ai should be noted foremost for his honest and fierce approach to life: he has unfailingly stuck to his beliefs, unafraid of any perilous consequences. An important Chinese artist and activist, Ai is above all human. Whenever he speaks out in his work, he does is it out of a personal duty that he feels for humanity. Specifically, he has repeatedly spoken against the oppressive and corrupt actions of the Chinese government.

What is extraordinary about Ai is that his courage is in essence quite simple: he looks (and makes us look) and speaks. Indeed, it does not take a momentous gesture or a mind-blowing invention to display courage. Rather, Ai shows that we are all endowed with the tool for change, which is our human expression. However, it is such expression that is often censored in China. Ai has been considered troublesome at home and has been under government investigation and surveillance. His blog has been censored and eventually shut down. This situation, however, has not prevented Ai from continuing to assert his beliefs.

The most recent example that significantly testifies to Ai's courage was his project regarding the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. He was in the process of compiling and publicizing the names of five thousand children whose school buildings had crushed them to death when the earthquake hit. Such a project in part arose out of anger towards the Chinese coverage of the earthquake, which curtailed the disastrous aftermath. His involvement in such an investigation eventually led to a severe beating on the head by Chinese officials, which later caused a cerebral hemorrhage. Despite such violent treatment, Ai continues to communicate with the world through his art and through the web. He will be having a major exhibition at the Tate this coming fall.

Even when Ai's work does not specifically attack a political situation, his intention is always to break down familiarity and numbness. He reminds us that we need to see the world through our own eyes, not through the government's, not through the media's. We need to respond to what we see. Indeed, Ai awakens our consciences in a profound, bold and risk-taking way.

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