“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based contemporary artist and activist, whose work actively speaks out against political activity and controversies. He is internationally renowned for work that defies the distinction between art and activism.
There was an anticipated excitement in viewing his new exhibition on Alcatraz, especially after reading and seeing so many of his large-scale works. All of the new works for this exhibition were created specifically for Alcatraz. As noted on For-Site Foundation’s site: “Ai responds to the island’s layered legacy as a 19th-century military fortress, a notorious federal penitentiary, a site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks.”
These large-scale Lego portraits, part of the Trace exhibit, portrayed 175 prisoners of conscience, a term coined for any person who is physically restrained, by imprisonment or otherwise, from expressing, in any form of words or symbols, any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.
Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese civil rights activist, often described as a “barefoot lawyer,” who worked on human rights issues in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, Chen advocated for women’s rights, land rights, and the welfare of the poor. He is best known for accusing people of abuses in official family-planning practices, often involving claims of violence and forced abortions.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was just 6 years old when he was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, one of Tibet’s most important religious leaders. Just after Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family were taken into custody by the Chinese authorities and he has not been seen since.
“From the New Industries Building’s lower gun gallery, where armed guards once monitored prisoners at work, visitors peer through cracked and rusted windows to glimpse an enormous metal wing on the floor below, called Refraction. Its design is based on close observation of the structure of real birds’ wings, but in place of feathers, the artwork bristles with reflective panels originally used on solar cookers in Tibet, a region that has long struggled under Chinese rule.
This piece uses imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom — be it physical, political, or creative — and confinement. The sculpture’s enormous bulk (it weighs more than five tons) and constrained position on the lower floor keep it earthbound, but one might imagine its array of solar panels silently mustering energy, preparing for takeoff.
By requiring visitors to view the work from the gun gallery, the installation implicates visitors in a complex structure of power and control. Following in the footsteps of prison guards, visitors are placed in a position of authority, and yet the narrowness of the space creates a visceral feeling of restriction.” – For-Site Foundation
In the cell block, one section of the prison the National Park Service did not initially offer Ai for his exhibition but after insisting for access, the NPS finally agreed.
When you enter the tiny cells where, you can’t even fully extend your arms between the walls. You then sit on single metal stool at the center of the tiny space. There is the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. You can’t help but see how Ai Weiwei melded the dramatic setting of Alcatraz with his art. The cell itself was tiny and was hard to imagine not going crazy in such a space, and then you hear the the music or poetry of dissident artists past or present as you go from one jail cell to the next.
It was a revelation to get new perspectives on Alcatraz and to contemplate questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond this particular place.
One of his most heart-touching projects was the citizen’s investigation on the Sichuan earthquake casualties.
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“Ten days after a 8.0-magnitude earthquake took place in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, Ai Weiwei led a team to survey and film the post-quake conditions in various disaster zones. In response to the government’s lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions, Ai recruited volunteers online and launched a “Citizens’ Investigation” to compile names and information of the student victims. On 20 March 2009, he posted a blog titled “Citizens’ Investigation” and wrote: “To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a “Citizens’ Investigation.” We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.”
As of 14 April 2009, the list had accumulated 5,385 names and Ai published the collected names as well as numerous articles documenting the investigation on his blog which was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009. He also posted his list of names of schoolchildren who died on the wall of his office at FAKE Design in Beijing.
Ai suffered headaches and claimed he had difficulty concentrating on his work since returning from Chengdu in August 2009, where he was beaten by the police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake. On 14 September 2009, Ai was diagnosed to be suffering internal bleeding in a hospital in Munich, Germany, and the doctor arranged for emergency brain surgery. The cerebral hemorrhage is believed to be linked to the police attack.
According to the Financial Times, in an attempt to force Ai to leave the country, two accounts used by him had been hacked in a sophisticated attack on Google in China dubbed Operation Aurora, their contents read and copied; his bank accounts were investigated by state security agents who claimed he was under investigation for “unspecified suspected crimes”.
-excerpt from wikipedia
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It is so easy to do nothing in the face of something wrong and it is truly an inspiration to see someone like Ai Weiwei, with so much courage, compassion and perseverance to keep fighting for what should be justifiably right.
As a friend recently mentioned, “We are distracted, overworked, overstressed and focused on chasing $$$, power, instant gratification, roofs over our heads, the basics, the easy, the complicated, the race to the top and so on. Running in our own personal hamster wheels with one end in sight… trust [your] gut… [and start] letting go of the fears that have been implanted by a dissonant society… We are at a unique place in time where we have a choice.
We have been presented with one option up to this point in our “history” and have continued to accept it. We have been convinced there is no other way and anything moving towards real change will be squashed. We have been implanted with fear and distrust. We have allowed responsibility to remain in hands outside of our own. We are told of freedoms but are endangered when we truly use them. This all will change when we chose it is time. The time is inevitable and we will get there together. It is scary and hard to imagine possible because we are so entrenched and dependent on our current ways. We will find an alternative together. It is our only true choice. It is within our hearts. It is within our spirit. No matter our differences.. no matter our distance. We are all one. We are all connected and there is no end.”
You can also check out the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry to find out more about Ai Weiwei and his work.
All the photos above were taken personally using my phone 🙂
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