Ai Weiwei: Art and Activism in Modern China

We as a society often think of Chinese citizens as scared followers without the means or courage to speak up in a strict, unforgiving police state. While that is true for the most part, instances of political protest have been demonstrated in the past, such as the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, the Umbrella revolution in Hong Kong in 2014, and in the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Surprisingly, Chinese political protest also exists in the form of art, in the artist Ai Weiwei. Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei (艾未未) was an established architect in China, having helped design the national landmark of the Beijing National Stadium, more commonly known as the Bird’s Nest. This stadium was home of the 2008 Summer Olympics, and will once again be the host in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Later on in life, he instead decided to pursue contemporary art, and established himself as an activist through such. One of his debuting political pieces was in 2009, when he directly challenged the government by putting up a list of names of children dead in the Sichuan earthquakes of 2008. The government had not released a death count or list of names previous in hopes to mislead the public about the destruction and tragedy caused by the earthquakes. Many also speculated that thousands of victims died directly due to poor governmental infrastructure, and so that reasoning also plays a part. Right now, he has become the most internationally recognized Chinese artist of this time, and was chosen as ArtReview’s most powerful artist in the world in 2011. He’s put large exhibitions of his works in esteemed artistic establishments all over the globe, such as in the MCB-A in Switzerland, the OCA in São Paolo, and many more.

Clearly, Weiwei is a distinguished figure in the art world. Some of his more famous

pieces, all politically motivated, include “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”, “Sunflower Seeds”, an exhibit of over 100 million handcrafted ceramics of sunflower seeds, and “Coca Cola Vase”. All of his work speaks out against the Chinese government, and he leaves his criticism and discontent, something that Chinese citizens are not allowed to express, for the world to see.

The Chinese public are undoubtedly aware of Weiwei and his political presence. In the documentary directed by Alison Klayman, “Never Sorry”, which follows through years in Weiwei’s life, Chinese fans are seen to be interacting with Weiwei in public places. Hundreds of Chinese citizens gathered at his art studio that was condemned by authorities in November of 2010. By just being seen with Weiwei, an active icon against the government, these citizens protested.

Within all this, the question of why the government allows Weiwei to continue on arises. The Communist Party is ruthless against those that wish to speak out – the students at the Tiananmen protests were treated with brutality and heavy firearms, Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated as a political prisoner, and the police were freely using pepper gas on the masses for the umbrella revolution – so why has Weiwei yet to receive the same treatment? Weiwei has come in contact with the brutality of the government on several occasions previous, in police brutality as well as being confined for 81 days in a Beijing jail, but he has yet to be silenced. Weiwei continues to be active on social media such as Weibo and Twitter, and is still displaying his pieces even to this date. Concrete evidence for why Weiwei is not silenced does not exist, but speculation suggests that his international fame and use of social media for presence is what makes authorities hesitant to detain him – his potentially unjust detainment would cause too much attention overseas, attention that Chinese authorities do not want.

Although one man’s voice against an institution is nowhere near enough to overrule a whole governmental system, it is a good place to start. Weiwei’s courageous acts to speak out against the government is encouragement for more freedom of speech in China.