Task 1: Research a particular protest movement or political visual artist, or a singular campaign/protest/piece, based on your reading of Duncombe and Lambert’s text, additional academic research and group discussion.
Straight (reduced to 90 tonnes) by Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
I chose Straight by Ai Weiwei to be the topic for this task of Design Activism portfolio writing because it was where my journey in defining ‘political art’ started with. I am aware that I am very likely to break the 250word limit. However, acknowledging the importance of contextualization, which I’ve learnt in Design Cultures and Histories last year, the thoughts just need to be visualised.
The original Straight is a rearrangement composed of 150 tonnes of straightened steel rods, used to reinforce concrete building in Chinese housing construction (Clark, 2011). These steels are not just some normal construction materiality but those collected and mangled from the site of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Sichuan in 2008.
In 2008, Ai Weiwei gathered a group called ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ for his quest in recovering the truth about the number of students that are victims of the natural disaster, which he believed had been covered up by the authorities; and at the same time uncovering the truth of Chinese officials corruption. As of 14 March 2009, the list had accumulated to 5385 names. He published the collected names and wrote on his blog:” To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors…we will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.” (Weiwei, 2009)
Display of the list in Main Hall, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
Ai’s exposure of the official corruption and shoddy building practices led to increased scrutiny of him by the Chinese government. In 2011, Ai was placed under house for 81 days on suspicion of “economic crimes”, which, according to journalist Edward Wong, indicates the authorities’ “failures to properly comply with regulations on regulations on business registration or taxation.” International government, human rights groups and arts community mobilised petition, calling for Ai’s release while his whereabouts had not been notified by Chinese authorities (Ng, 2011).
After the release in 2011, Ai came straight back to his studio where the first thing he heard was the sound of his team working on the rebars. He thought it was ‘incredibly powerful’. And that’s how Straight was born.
Straight by Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
Despite being admired and renowned by the Western world as a dissentient artivist, Ai Weiwei remains little known in China which leads me to question whether if any of his art does matter, politically. Ai might be the master of making extremely exotic experiences for museumgoers by representing a powerful exploration of Chinese culture, history and material, taking them to one wow to another with a huge bulky arrangement or his courage (which some may refer to as ‘ugly nihilism’) in breaking a 2000-year-old piece urn to make a triptych work (Perl, 2013). However, without the description or narrative provided through the high-tech museum guiding device, how many of his work can be appreciated and considered as (political) art? The problem with political art critiques is that they pay too much attention on the politics. This does not mean that an artist’s politics is not important, though the idea of saluting Ai as a political artivist in the art museum by pleading his case every time is just another fraud to me.
Clark, N (2015). Ai Weiwei: Artist’s monumental sculpture Straight to be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/ai-weiwei-artists-monumental-sculpture-straight-to-be-exhibited-at-the-royal-academy-10321958.html (Accessed 28 October 2015).
Ng, D (2011). LACMA, other museum demand release of Ai Weiwei in petition. . Available from: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/04/lacma-and-other-museums-demand-release-of-ai-weiwei-in-petition.html (Accessed 28 October 2015).
Weiwei, Ai (2011). Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006–2009. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Weiwei, Ai (2009). 5.12遇难学生名单 补充 (八十四) 09.04.11. Available from: http://www.bullogger.com/blogs/aiww/archives/289730.aspx (Accessed 29 October 2015).
List of images:
All photographs were taken by me unless stated otherwise.