By Rachel Stableford
If you’re an artist, you have to see it. If you are not an artist, you have to see it. Whether or not you even know who Ai Weiwei is, you have to see it. The show will change you. Change how you look at the world and change how you react to it. Weiwei, will both inspire and pull at your heartstrings. And, ultimately, he will make you question, “according to what?”
The exhibit consists of a well-rounded compilation of photographs, sculpture installation and digital art. Weiwei examines such issues as; freedom of expression, individual and human rights, the power of digital communication and what defines contemporary art both in China and globally.
For Weiwei, freedom of expression is an essential part of life and art. He uses art to engage people in political and cultural issues, to better help them address and understand the past. Although Chinese authorities may not agree, Weiwei says, “We have a right to give our opinion, we have a right to say something, or we are part of it. As an artist, I am forced to say something.”
One of the first of the total thirty pieces in the show titled, Brain Inflation, shows a scan of Weiwei’s brain. After being beaten by police in China for his political art, his brain hemorrhaged and he was operated on in Germany. What now seems almost as an understatement after being beaten, Weiwei said, “I live in one of the most extreme political societies of the world, and it sees freedom of expression as an enemy of the state.” Particularly in North America, freedom of expression can be taken for granted, this exhibit bears witness to Weiwei’s courage. He gives his opinions, shares his thoughts and stands up for those who cannot stand for themselves.
The moment you enter the exhibit one can feel Weiwei’s presence — though he is literally on the other side of the world, confined under house arrest. The show is very emotional and visitors should be aware of that. Moving through the exhibit provokes feelings of anger, sorrow and even awe, and in many cases it may leave the visitor feeling disturbed. Visitors have a chance to watch the documentary Never Sorry, which is very powerful, but be aware it is very graphic and shows actual footage from the 2008 Sichaun earthquake. Many viewers could not sit through its’ entirety. However, the documentary does give a glimpse of Weiwei and his world, and helps visitors better understand his inspiration for some of the pieces in the exhibit. Weiwei is very well known for investigating the earthquake and holding the government responsible for the deaths of over 5, 212 children killed. Three pieces in the exhibit in particular are a direct result of this investigation and are especially moving; “Snake Ceiling,” “Straight,” and “Remembrance.” During the investigation Weiwei wrote, (about the victims) “the hearts stopped beating, their limbs decayed and their shouts disappeared with their breath, can these be returned?” There is no beating around the bush for this man, he is very direct in his words and in his art, and it is this frankness that makes him so influential.
It’s no wonder that Art Review magazine has twice named him one of the “top 100 most powerful artists,” and Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario says, “It’s a pretty big deal for us,” of the exhibit (the AGO is it’s only Canadian stop).
Weiwei stated that he felt “forced to say something,” and the least we can do is listen. So come hear what Weiwei has to say. It should not be missed.
Photographer: James Hawkesworth
Photographer: James Hawkesworth