The BBC Imagine series has always showcased some prolific artists and introduced their ideas to the British public, who before may not have been aware of their work. This is particularly the case with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is at the moment one of the most famous Chinese artists working today, but he is yet to enjoy the status as a household name. I think British artists should take inspiration from his work shrouded in his political activism against the Chinese Government, particularly when we are ourselves are currently questioning the actions of our own.
Ai Weiwei follows a typical contemporary practise of appropriating a cultural object, and then modifying it to transform its meaning to a whole new context.
This work was created after the 2008 Sichzuin earthquake. As the Chinese Government tried to conceal details of the thousands of child fatalities due the poor constructions of the schools, removing the names from the children’s backpacks that were left in the rubble, so parents were unable to identify their lost children. Ai Weiwei launched an investigation into the event on his blog, which was later shut down. This work entitled ‘Remembering’, was an installation outside the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and over 9000 backpacks spell out one of the comments who lost her children: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”.
Ai Weiwei also had a crucial role in the creative design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, built specifically for 2008 Olympic games. He later distanced himself from the project and games itself, criticising organisers.
His current exhibition in the Turbine hall at the Tate Modern will introduce Ai Weiwei to the British public. This installation is compromised of 100 million Sunflower seeds, all individually hand-made from porcelain china, using the same techniques to create Ming vases. While there are 100 million seeds here, this only represents 1/16 of the Chinese population. The sunflower seed is a symbol signifying mass production, but was also one of the few things left to eat in the famines during the Mao’s cultural revolution. Sunflowers were often used in Chinese Propaganda posters of emblems of hope, looking up to Mao for a brighter future, but the transgression here appears much bleaker. But the seeds here are so tactile, full of tradition and craftmanship: touching them would create such a nostalgic personal connection that the political message would become much more deep seated.
Artists, like journalists, have a responsibility to document the stories of our time to make the public aware of what is going. The public need to be aware, challenged and engaging with political issues that will effect them, but unfortunately too many issues get hidden by spin. That’s why artists need to create works to challenge not only the viewer but our peers, create history and make us remember important events forever.
His installation at the Turbine hall at the Tate Modern is on view until May.