In Fall 2009, when Ai Weiwei was an artist in residence at UC Berkeley, he accidentally knocked over a thousand-year-old Chinese urn which is supposed to be a part of the up coming Chinese art exhibition. The staff at the BAM had to contact one of the largest art auction houses, Christie’s, to bid on a similar urn which eventually arrived right before the exhibition started. Later in the contemporary Chinese art exhibition at the BAM, Ai Weiwei displayed two of his installations, both of which are composed with ancient Chinese urns. On one of them, he painted red Coca-Cola logo across the urn; on the other, he arranged one hundred and forty-three Neolithic vases in a chess board fashion, painted half of them white and shiny while the rest in original state, black and orange. The mass influence of oriental element never leaves Ai Weiwei’s artwork, even when he was political exiled by the Chinese Communist Party. The more he is repelled by the government, the more he let his heritage sink into his artwork and turn it into a wordless weapon to fight his freedom.
Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a well respected modern poet who was later exiled during the Anti-Rightist Movement instigated by Chariman Mao Zedong. Ai Weiwei received education at Parsons School of Design in New York after finishing his degree at the Beijing Film Academy. In New York, he soon became interested in readymade objects and blackjack (he is still regarded as a top blackjack player). His career as an artist and architect started to boom in Beijing and New York when he established several villages for artists and co-designed private residence in upstate New York. When Beijing was selected to host the Olympics in 2008, Ai cooperated with Swiss architects to design the Beijing National Stadium where the opening and closing ceremony is held.
When he left for New York for the first time, he claimed that he never wanted to return to China again. No matter how much he wanted to leave China behind, his cultural heritage has already infiltrated every layer of his artwork. His mesmerizing Sunflower Seeds, which consists of one hundred million porcelain hand-made “seeds” crafted by Chinese artisans from the most prestigious porcelain town. When people walk on top of these seeds, what come to their minds? In a country with world’s largest population, the concept of “number”, “population”, “collectivism” and “individuality” is largely ambiguous. Each seed, even though they are individually and uniquely painted by artisans, once they are put into a gigantic pile and allowed to be walked on, their identity cease to exist. Just like each and every single person in China which has a population of 1.3 billion, they are all born unique, but once they are educated or brainwashed into collectivism under the one regime, where do their identities disappear to?
Ai Weiwei’s identity is wiped clean from governmental documents ever since the political message carried in his artwork is questioned. He dugs deep into the corruption in the Communist party and violation of human rights and democracy. In 2008, Ai endorsed an investigation on the casualties of Sichuan earthquake (in which seventy thousand lost their lives), especially those of the students. Because of governmental corruption, the funding for school was never enough to purchase high quality building materials which will stand through the earthquake. Innocent students, from elementary schools to high schools, lost their lives to their irresponsibly constructed schools. His investigation on government corruption on building materials for schools was soon shut down, along with his personal blog and other documents. The children who were buried deep down in the debris are just like the sunflower seeds in the pile: anonymous, neglected and forgotten.
In November 2010, Ai Weiwei was under arrest. Soon after, his studio in Shanghai is demolished without any notice. Even his family is not notified of Ai’s whereabouts. Even so, after his release, he immediately started to use his artwork to strike back. The scale of his production, the medium of his artwork, and the constant presence of Chinese element question the audience the definition of individuality, freedom and identity in a country with 1.3 billion sunflower seeds.
The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.