Is art an end or a beginning? Ai Weiwei and the art of activism

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and activist who came to attention in Britain after his Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern in 2010. His work explores a number of themes including contemporary Chinese society, freedom of speech and even his own freedom. He currently lives and works in Beijing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           AWW

Straight, 2008-12

Art is subjective, evoking different meanings for different people. For me this piece was as serious and inflexible as the facts it represented. ‘Straight’ is a silent but unabashed demonstration, protesting the loss of innocent lives and highlighting the corruption of an authority that was meant to protect them.

weiwei straight.PNG

On 12 May 2008, a catastrophic earthquake rocked the Sichuan province of south Western China and killed over 87,000 people, 5000 of whom were school children. When the quake hit, many of the province’s school buildings collapsed completely, mainly due to substandard building work authorised by corrupt local officials looking to make a personal gain.


When I entered the room, I saw what looked like waves. But these waves did not flow; they were hard and permanent, sculpted from layer upon layer of steel rebar. After the earthquake, Weiwei bought 150 tons of the bent and twisted rebar (the steel bars used for reinforcing the poorly built school buildings) and painstakingly straightened each piece by hand. Each piece of rebar had to be hammered over 200 times; a cathartic exercise that returned what was damaged to its original form.

Unfortunately, ‘Straight’ also serves as a reminder that the same could not be done for the lives lost. Instead, each life is commemorated on two regrettably large wall hangings either side of the installation. The names, genders and birthdays of each victim are documented on these boards.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         AWW4

Surveillance Camera, 2010

The first thing I noticed about this piece (as I took pictures of it on my very new and expensive iPhone) was the irony it aroused. I was taking pictures of a piece that highlighted how pictures were being taken of us every day. “You are being surveyed,” it screamed, as I looked around the gallery at the four surveillance cameras in the room that were not part of the exhibition.


‘Surveillance Camera’ is sculpted from white marble and modelled on the twenty cameras placed around Weiwei’s studio house to monitor his every movement. His use of white marble symbolises wealth and power and has strong historical associations with both Imperial and Communist China.

In this piece Weiwei boldly challenges the idea of observation and perspective, prompting us to do the same in our own lives. Are we so different? Maybe we don’t have cameras outside our homes monitoring when we leave, how long for, and at what time we eventually return. But with social media now a normal part of our lives – “check ins” to places with our friends, pictures and “tags” to document what we’ve been doing and with whom – the parallels are clear. Perhaps the main difference is that ours is a voluntary surveillance. We want to be watched.

S.A.C.R.E.D, 2011-13
Six large dark wood boxes greeted me upon entering the exhibition room. I soon learned that these boxes were actually half sized models of the cell in which Weiwei was illegally detained for 81 days after his arrest at Beijing airport on 3 April 2011. Weiwei memorized every detail of his cell and recreated six scenes to show how his daily activities were under the constant scrutiny of the prison guards.

weiwei 2

The detail in this work is remarkable; everything is miniature but entirely life like. There is even a miniature wall fan, which Weiwei remembers as being the only source of ventilation to his windowless room. This fan blows air around the room and with it a peculiar scent that is hard to ignore. I wondered whether Weiwei added this aroma as another sensory experience. Was this the smell of confinement? The smell of his art? Or just the fragrance of the wood? I still don’t know.

As I moved around the room, I glanced in through the cell windows, intrigued to see what the next scene would be.


It wasn’t until I reached the third cell that I realised you could also peer through a roof window on to the scene below. I did this and found myself looking down on a sleeping Weiwei. I remember thinking how intrusive this felt, which is probably exactly what Weiwei was trying to achieve. His life was – and still is – under constant scrutiny, and now we were being invited to scrutinise too.

Author: Francesca Ryan

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