I had heard of Ai Weiwei long before I finally saw his work today at the Brooklyn Museum. I knew he was a prominent Chinese artist and political activist who has been persecuted by the Communist Party, suffering among other things frequent arrests, severe beatings, and having his passport revoked and studio demolished. But it’s one thing to read about a man and his work and another to see it up-close and in person. Learning about Ai Weiwei through the newspaper may have acquainted me with his life and work, but they were still abstract to me. He was something that took place far away, even though at one point he had lived in NYC for 10 years, and his story seemed so alien to me that it read more like fiction than real life; it can be hard to fully grasp the difficulties people face all over the world from our comfortable, safe, and free perches here in the U.S.
This is why seeing Ai’s work today was a revelation. It took his story and placed it before me. I could see his challenge to the Chinese government in his replication of Ye Haiyan’s Belongings exactly as they were when she and her daughter were discarded alongside an isolated road by the secret police.
I could smell his evocation of China’s ancient culture in the three, one-ton houses he built from compressed tea leaves and then placed on a delicate lawn of dried tea petals – a powerful reminder that there’s much to celebrate in China despite its politics.
And I could hear the consequences of Ai’s activism in the sound of his hospital gurney being wheeled into the operating room for emergency brain surgery, the video-taped aftermath of a beating given to him by Chinese police for daring to count and list the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
We hear all the time about art’s ability to inspire and challenge, to demand more from us as individuals, from society, and from our governments. It was invigorating to come face-to-face with such a shining example of that force today. Ai Weiwei is an incredibly thoughtful and creative man. His determination to continue sharing his work, despite the repression he’s faced, is not only courageous but represents the pulse, for now faint, of the China of the future, one where the people demand the freedom to express themselves and the right to control their own lives. It’s an exciting thought and I for one can’t wait to see what Ai and his compatriots create in such a world.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? is showing at the Brooklyn Museum until August 10th. Tickets are $15 but could be $100. The exhibit is a must see and warrants any price.