‘Everything is art. Everything is politics.’ So Ai Weiwei said to The Independent in February 2010. Two inseparable entities the acknowledged Chinese artist-activist likes to play with when creating something, aiming at making people feel challenged and uncomfortable.
© Ai Weiwei
Using his own story and personal experience of life, Ai Weiwei has become a master in terms of artistic activism and claims the inseparableness of arts and politics, but more importantly the persistence of his advocacy for human rights through his art. ‘The art always wins.’ he once said. ‘Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’ With this statement, the artist praises the power of the arts and their capacity to outlive not only the artist, but all of us too.
The current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, perfectly exemplifies this interconnectedness between arts and politics. Indeed, the latest works of cultural phenomenon Ai Weiwei took over the main galleries, to denounce any kind of imprisonment – may it be moral or physical – to once again put up a non-violent fight for human rights, and to praise nowadays possibility of unrestricted communication.
Following in his father’s footsteps, a poet exiled by the Chinese Communist government for 20 years, Ai Weiwei built his entire artistic career on speaking out against oppression and censorship, which artists of his generation still face today in China. Through artistic performances, the world’s most famous artist-dissident protests against this regime, disregarding some fundamental human rights.
The use of performative artwork
Lois Weaver once said: ‘If you can imagine it, you can make it; if you can make it, you can make it change.’ These few words quite simply illustrate what performative artwork is about. Performative art is to express the possibility of something, without actually providing the necessary means to make change occur. In other words, performative art works as a catalyst for change, a trigger in people’s mind showing that action is possible and that, consequently, change is possible too.
Performative art is a very powerful tool, which concretises a certain kind of activism and makes the audience take a first step forward.
Ai Weiwei uses this technique to stand up for human rights, such as the people’s right to know and the people’s right to express themselves.
Fighting for human rights through performative artwork
Through diverse works of art, the Chinese artist condemns his country’s self-promotional rhetoric and disregard for human rights.
For instance, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese government refused to release any information to the public; and so as to fight this injustice, this form of censorship, Ai Weiwei launched the Citizens’ Investigation in order to find the names of those schoolchildren who perished in the quake. ‘This investigation will be remembered for generations as the first civil rights activity in China.’ Ai Weiwei explained. ‘To me, that is art. It directly affects people’s feelings and their living conditions, their freedom and how they look at the world.’
Moreover, his flock of red and black crabs, a symbol of a harmonious society and a warning against any dissent, actually denotes the incredible existing censorship in Chinese society.
However, recent events have shown that Ai Weiwei not only denounces the Chinese censorship, but also the one existing on a more universal level. After Danish company Lego refused to send a bunch of its colourful bricks to the Chinese artist for an upcoming work of art about freedom of expression, Ai Weiwei reacted on social media to denounce this act of censorship, leading many people around the world to send their old Lego bricks to the rebellious artist.
Another right Ai Weiwei is very keen on defending is the right to security – a keenness he notably showed during his walk with the artist, Anish Kapoor, in London’s East End, which was home to centuries of immigrants (including Jews, French Huguenots, Irish, and Bangladeshis) feeling oppression and deprivation. Both artists, who walked to draw the attention to the need for a comprehensive humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, were wearing a blanket on that day as a symbol of the human right to rest and security.
And last but not least, Ai Weiwei fights for the most fundamental human right ever to exist: freedom in itself. One of the most notable performances for this occurred when he was imprisoned and had his passport confiscated, and as a form of protest against incarceration, he left his bicycle chained up outside his studio, where a fresh bunch of flowers was dropped off every day. ‘That’s how he got about as a kid. I think for him the bicycle symbolised those very important years as an adolescent, the sense of freedom that a bike would give,’ said Adrian Locke, the curator of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. ‘So chaining a bicycle to a tree so that it can’t move is kind of like creating a grave, that he’d put flowers next to.’
The Internet and social media as weapons for democracy and freedom of expression
In April 2012, Ai Weiwei said to The Guardian: ‘The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.’ Very eager to keep his promise to never be silenced, Ai Weiwei looks at the Internet and social media as weapons for self-expression as well as a space of intrinsic democracy, allowing the exchange of ideas and the expression of creativity, thus paving the way to freedom.
Ai Weiwei is an avid user of Twitter and Instagram as well as other social media; he believes that these spaces are governed by democracy and freedom, and thus allow people to never be stopped by anyone or anything. While still deprived of his passport, he once explained: ‘I still have the Internet and I can still manage to organise exhibitions with established institutions. In today’s condition, I do not think that anybody can stop the exchange of ideas.’
It goes without saying that the Internet has its pros and cons, but Ai Weiwei chooses to see the best in it, i.e. its capacity to contain and deliver great ideas of people all over the world, free to express themselves and let their creativity speak. ‘If my art is my life, without the Internet there is no life. I think the Internet is the most precious thing for any individual who wants to express themself, who wants to share feelings or meanings or concepts with other people.’ Ai once said.
Hence, through his use of performative artwork and social media, Ai developed a certain activism and started a fight for freedom. Thanks to his political art, Ai Weiwei is carrying out a constant fight against censorship, destroying – through his work – any forms of restriction, thus reminding us of Mao’s own words: ‘We can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.’