In the first of sbcltr’s Voices of Dissent series, Manan Kapoor writes about the importance of dissent and how artist Ai Weiwei thrives on the idea
Free men with the habit of exercising free speech will vent their anger by any means necessary. No matter how seditious the thought, no matter how much it offends an ethno-religious group or the values of a nation, a society requires dissent to keep itself in balance. In fact, one might argue that a society is built upon the dissent expressed and pointed towards it over the years. Even though the word ‘dissent’ has been around for centuries, it has seeped into the colloquial tongues across the world only in the past few years.
It can be quite safely regarded that the state of the world, in times where it is turning alarmingly majoritarian and conservative, is bad. Under the given circumstances, questioning the truths of the state and its puppets, the expression of one’s beliefs and ideas, and dissent pointed towards the leaders isn’t acceptable and is in many cases considered seditious. In times where dissent has no place, it becomes extremely important to talk about artists like Ai Weiwei who are uncompromising in their battle for freedom of expression.
Out of a constant irritation, an oyster develops a pearl. Ai Weiwei is that constant source of irritation. He is a contemporary artist and activist whose studio is under the surveillance of fifteen Chinese government cameras at all times. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights, and has been a ceaseless, unflagging voice for the voiceless. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular, the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Though what is more important than his actions, and the actions of the Chinese government, is his art.
“I don’t see myself as a dissident artist, I see them as a dissident government,” Weiwei said in an interview. He is the unabashed, deadpan anti-hero for the anti-nationals, brandishing a stoic ‘fuck you’ to one Han dynasty urn at a time.
Ai Weiwei wasn’t introduced to oppression at a later stage in his life, but it was something he was born into. His father, Ai Qing, was a poet to Mao Zedong. In 1961, Qing was banned from writing and was exiled to camps in the province of Xinjiang in northwest China. Qing was forced into hard labour where his family lived in an underground, rat-ridden shed. The poet was made to clean the communal toilets for over 200 people, was beaten daily, and lost vision in one of his eyes due to severe nutritional deprivation. Weiwei’s father’s extensive collection of books was burned, and only a French encyclopedia survived which he annotated and handed over to his son. When asked about the living conditions of exile, Weiwei said that the “living conditions were extremely harsh, and education was almost non-existent.” It was in 1976 that Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing and continued his education at the Beijing Film Academy. He went on to go to the United States where he befriended his neighbour Allen Ginsberg and was introduced to the works of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol.
The Han Dynasty period was a significant epoch that carved the Chinese society and its values are still curated by the Chinese people and their government. All subsequent Chinese dynasties looked back to the Han period as an inspiring model of a united empire and self-perpetuating government. It was during the Han period that the silk route flourished, and Chinese borders were expanded to include Vietnam and North Korea, making it the largest empire to date. In a series of three pictures taken in 1995 Outside his mother’s home in Beijing, Weiwei photographed himself dropping a Han Dynasty Urn that had survived for almost 2000 years, and it broke in a matter of split seconds. Not only did the urn have worth to a considerable value, it also had cultural and historical importance. Through this act, Weiwei expressed his views on the relationship between history and value. Clubbed with Weiwei’s actions were his unapologetic expressions that reflect the object’s importance to him. He expresses transgression and questions authority of the historical objects and the culture that supports them, offering a scrutiny of the structures of power and significance. To some, it seems unsettling how nonchalantly he drops the urn and lets it break. It could be shocking to some as it is relaxing, oddly liberating, to someone else, based on one’s bent. This action can elicit strong philosophical questions and implications that point towards very basic questions. Why do we value something? Do we actively value something or is it social conditioning, and if we can take a step back from that “valuation”?
On another urn, Weiwei painted the logo of the Coca-Cola company, expressing his firm disbelief in the value attached to historical art and the Cultural Revolution brought under Mao Zedong’s rule where he damaged the burial place of Confucius and the remains of the Ming Dynasty tombs. The Coca-Cola Vase has a twentieth century logo painted upon a two-thousand-year-old vase; the emblem of American capitalism forced upon an ancient Chinese artifact. It was an agitative act of cultural destruction that was a response to the erasure of cultural memory by the Communist government of China.
Ai Weiwei’s, Study of Perspective, mimic tourist photos that are clicked with monuments in the background. It is a series where Weiwei’s middle finger is positioned in front of some of the world’s most notable man-made landmarks around the world. Throughout the series, viewers see Weiwei’s left arm extended forward with the middle finger raised to famous and significant landmarks and backdrops from around the world. One might chuckle at these pictures, another might be offended, but Weiwei is only challenging the limits of freedom of expression through his art. His images demand that viewers challenge their own unquestioning acceptance and adherence towards the establishment, institutions, authority, and governments. beliefs regarding freedom of speech, empowerment of the people, and democratic values.
The first in this series was shot in Tiananmen Square in 1995, where during the 1989 democracy movement protests hundreds to thousands of unarmed protesters were killed. In Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square, the photo first appears to be a classic tourist photo in which Weiwei sticks his middle finger up at Tiananmen Square Gate. Other landmarks featured in Weiwei’s series include the White House in Washington D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and The Reichstag. The gesture is the focal point of the photo, as the objects that are closer to the eye appear larger, thus his statement is the key point in the photo.
The series achieved worldwide recognition following Weiwei posting the images on his blog. In 2011, Weiwei was arrested and interrogated by the Chinese police regarding the Tiananmen photograph. Following Weiwei detention, other people began to post similar images of themselves on the internet as a signal of solidarity. His work has not only brought attention to a number of social issues but has garnered support and inspired other activities. He had a clear thought about the image he wanted to give to Chinese institutions and Western curators, institutions and dealers, and that thought was: “We had to say something as individual artist to the outside world, and what we said was ‘fuck off.'”
In two thousand eight when the Sichuan earthquake struck he visited the region in the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to gather the names of the dead, addressing attempts by authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of school children who died because of poorly built schools. Weiwei produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. In October 2009, he amassed tonnes of twisted re-bar from the wreckage and painstakingly straightened it and assembled it into spare elegiac memorials. In his installation, Remembering, he arranged 9,000 backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich to represent the young lives lost, spelling out a quote from a victim’s mother, “she lived happily for seven years in this world.” Regarding this work, Weiwei said that “The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake, many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realise individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.” His latest is a work on the refugee crisis.
He’s often called an iconoclast, and an urn crusher would certainly seem to adhere to the definition. But there’s another way to see Weiwei. He is someone who desperately wants the cherished beliefs and institutions to be remembered and resuscitated. He isn’t an artist who is trying to destroy the ancient art but simply asking people to question their value. Even his own work is deeply rooted in history and tradition. Weiwei is aware of the fact that his art incites a nostalgic feeling of preserving and remembering. He doesn’t have problems with culture or heritage, but mostly with silence and forgetting. He asks fundamental questions about our human rights, and no matter how iconoclastic his approach might seem, it definitely makes one deliberate and think about the questions that he poses through his art.
The Voices of Dissent series is aimed at throwing light on people who have been speaking against abuse of power. If you have an interesting story and wish a person featured, please send us an e-mail at, firstname.lastname@example.org