This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that occurred in 1989 when students stood in the square to peacefully protest for democracy. It is unknown to this day just how many people were killed in the square by gargantuan military machinery, but estimates range from hundreds to 2600. It’s no secret that China, under Communist leadership, hovers over it’s citizens and controls the internet, but according to Louisa Lim, NPR Beijing correspondent, who’s new book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”, most young college students have no recollection of the Massacre. Authorities have wiped out the entire history from textbooks and there is no record of it within the internet due to censorship. Lim interviewed artist Ai Wei Wei last year and asked “Why the Chinese Communist Party cannot talk about it? His answer, “Because that’s the time they lost their legitimacy”. Just yesterday on the anniversary, Ai wrote, “China Loses by forgetting about Tiananmen Square”, “How long can China continue on this forgetful path? With the Internet and globalization exposing citizens to truths that are self-evident elsewhere in the world, the country is facing an internal crisis of credibility. The loss of trust and moral common ground between individuals and the state is the most dangerous issue facing the regime today. China cannot move forward unless it first confronts this problem – rather than suppressing it like so much else in our history.”
Ai Wei Wei is an international artist, architect and political speaker who’s work addresses the inequality of power in China by the government, their gross negligence towards it’s citizens, censorship towards anyone who speaks their mind, and his ironic ability, through his art, to hold Chinese government accountable for erasing the truth from history, in favor of power and economic growth. He was born in Beijing in 1957 and became an artist in 1978, post the abandonment of Maoism. He lived in New York from 1983 – 1993. There he was introduced and inspired by the art of Marcel Duchamp and met Allen Ginsberg, and other artists. He moved back to China in 1993 and joined the alternative art scene that was occurring at that time. He’s had several international art exhibits, but more recently he’s been recognized for his art installations that reflect his dissidence towards Chinese government with an ironic eye on the culture of modernity as a whole.
In the current exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: Evidence” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin running from April 3rd – July 7th, 2014, Ai who isn’t allowed to leave China due to his passport being revoked, has created several original installations, combined with past works, to create an eye opening exhibition that not only challenges government and authority, but artistically documents his 81 days in prison. The artist ironically looks at Chinese history, including antiquity, with modernity’s ever consuming power threatening to overshadow and erase history, in favor of power.
The grandness of the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum is the perfect backdrop for some of the original and powerful installations by Ai Weiwei that consume the viewer and command their attention. Upon entering the museum’s first floor, in the atrium, hang 150 bikes, named Very Yao. Guests can’t help but stop and take a step in various points of the ground floor, and mezzanine, to examine the intricately assembled “Forever” bikes. They represent the death of Yang Jia, a young man from Beijing who was illegally arrested for allegedly riding an unlicensed bicycle rental. He was violently assaulted during detention, and had several unsuccessful attempts to appeal. He later was accused of murdering six Shanghai police officers, and was found guilty, and sentenced to death. The bicycle installation shows 150 uniform bicycles, indicating perfection, but upon deeper investigation reflect the fragility of the citizens as just another number, in contrast to the power of the state. The bikes also fill up the rotunda of the museum, and point toward the top of the building, perhaps suggesting the innocence of the biker as he rides into the light of the glass dome towards a better place. In this instance, it is an homage to Yang of remembrance, and a symbol that this act of violence won’t be forgotten or tolerated.
Probably the most disturbing and eye opening segment of the exhibition that speaks to the title, “Evidence”, is the installation entitled, “81”. Here Ai has recreated an exact replica of the cell he inhabited for 81 days that viewers can walk through, to not only understand the atrocious conditions he had to endure, but how countless other people, who have spoken out against government have faced, and still face today. Ai was sentenced to this cell, where lights were kept on at all times, and where two guards stood beside him just inches away, 24 hours a day. Additionally, there were three cameras filming the room, including the bathroom. He was arrested for pornography, evading taxes and polygamy. None of these were true, in fact, he posed nude with women in response to his fans wanting to be photographed with him, and they did so consensually, and not sexually. Additionally, he never remarried, so the child he fathers, has nothing to do with breaking marriage laws. Nobody pays taxes in China, so there’s no such thing as tax evasion. It’s clear that the government wanted to silence Ai for his vocal views on the government via his widely popular blog, which was later shut down. Walking through the cell as a viewer is stifling and depressing for a few minutes, let alone for 81 days. It speaks volumes to Ai’s strength to survive these conditions, yet shows the world the inhumanity that the Chinese government has towards it’s people as they live in fear of the truth. In this powerful interactive installation, Ai is unveiling the horrific truth of the Chinese government for all to witness as evidence.
SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE WORKS
It’s difficult to single out specific installations as each one, as the title suggests becomes it’s own investigation into a layered past fused with irony, history, modernity and the hidden truth. Some of the most powerful work is in a series Ai did after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 that had an 8.0 magnitude, and killed nearly 70,000 people. Among the many casualties were thousands of school children in collapsed school campuses, where government structures for leaders remained in tact, the schools weren’t so lucky. Upon further investigation, it was concluded by some that the iron metal rods, in these schools, were improperly assembled creating a weak foundation. The government could not speak to the actual names and numbers of those children who were killed. As a result, Ai created the Citizens Investigation, which gathered and posted the names of those children who had died on his blog, which later was shut down by leaders. A series of work in “Evidence” can be viewed of some of these actual steel rods, that Ai collected and reformed into sculptures, as well as the names of those children who died. The beautiful tribute to not forget the children and give them their due respect is staggering, yet a call to action towards responsibility.
The picture above shows Neolithic vases that are highly prized, rare and expensive from the imperial Hans Dynasty, from 206BC – 220AD, which preceded the Qin Dynasty. They have been stripped of their original engravings, which is partly what is used to tell their age and significance, which Ai has painted over in glossy automotive paint, that is often associated with high-end cars like Mercedes-benz and BMW. By painting over these, ‘so called artifacts’, he is questioning what we hold as sacred, and on the other hand, how we wash over history through our quest for modernity. The same can be said with the below image entitled, “Table and Chest with Chairs”.
Ai Weiwei’s “Evidence” is not only a timely exhibition that intersects with the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where the Chinese government continues to erase history and punish those who have not committed any real crimes, but have simply spoken their mind against government. A right that here in the States we take for granted, however is increasingly showing ‘evidence’ of being threatened through examples like Net Neutrality which fights to save how we surf the net, and through watch dogs. For example, during the Obama administration there have been the most people, 8 out of 11, charged under the ‘Espionage Act’, which was enacted in 1917. Read about the documentary, “Silenced” to see this in action. At a very basic level, Ai, through his art, is challenging those in power and questioning that which we give our power to. This couldn’t be more evident than his provocative, yet humorous collection of images he’s taken over the years standing in front of iconic monuments from the Eiffel Tower to the White House, where Ai is flipping off the monument with his left hand, thus questioning a monument’s collective power over it’s people. Take a look below.
AI WEIWEI “EVIDENCE” is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin from April 3, 2014 – July 7th, 2014. You can also look for the documentary about Ai Weiwei entitled, “The Fake Case”, which is currently playing in selected cities and moving on to a larger venues. Go to www.theFakeCase.com Watch the trailer below.