I am very happy that there are people like the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. The second film I watched at the 2012 Movies that Matter Festival, Alison Klayman‘s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2011), follows his work.
Ai Weiwei is a classical example of what the Greeks in ancient times referred to as a ‘parrhesiast’. This denotes a person who ‘courageously speaks the truth’. By most of his art, Ai Weiwei endangers his own life by calling our attention to all sorts of deplorable situations in China. He comes across as fearless, but admits being scared with many of his actions.
For a long time, he managed to keep his balance on the ‘razor’s edge’. He seemed to get away with a good deal more than other Chinese dissidents. However, in early 2011, he was arrested for 81 days. Since then, many of his basic freedoms have been taken from him. In spite of this, his motto remains ‘never retreat, retweet’. If you and your browser read Chinese, you can follow him as @aiww on Twitter.
Going government’s work
A good deal of his work deals with ‘showing the unshown’. An impressive example is his work about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 90.000. This included thousands of children, to a great extent due to the poor construction of school buildings. One of Ai’s works consisted of creating a horrendously long list of all the children that died. It covered an entire wall of his office.
On top of that, he invited families to send him voice recordings of the names of their children. For an exhibition at the Munch Haus der Kunst, he covered an enormous wall with 7.000 schoolbags. The image read: ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’. One commentator in the film says that he is doing the work that government should have done.
Publicising the self
His contribution is not appreciated. At some point, policemen break into a hotel room in which he is staying. He receives a serious blow to the head, for which he is eventually operated. Fortunately, he managed to take a picture of the event, just before being hit. He uploads it to Twitter, where is goes viral. His own case becomes a central node in portraying the misconduct of government and police. The pictures of his face after operation, and the occasional middle finger, are symbolic for the suffering many others.
Making things public
The term ‘making things public’ is often used as a colloquial description of publicising, of showing the unshown. The French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-) has given a twist to this term. He first started this in his introduction to the catalogue of the 2005 exhibition Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy at ZKM in Karlsruhe. First of all, he focuses on the ‘thing’ that is made public. Often we are hardly aware of the role of material objects in creating public awareness, popular debate and democratic processes. Particularly in the case of art this is a major flaw. The long list of names, the voice recordings, the school bags, the images of his assault, all play a role in a much broader process.
The second element of Latour’s ‘twist’ is what it means to make something ‘public’. To make this clear, Latour refers to the notion of ‘the public’, which John Dewey (1859-1952) presented in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems. A public is a group of people that is confronted with the negative consequences of something that is beyond their control. A public might organise actions to turn the situation for the better. Latour argues that such ‘publics’ often evolve around ‘things’ or ‘matter’. For example, a hazardous crossing in a domestic area can turn into a ‘matter of concern’, as Latour calls it.
Making matter move
I would say that a lot of Ai Wei Wei’s work can be described as making ‘matters of concern’. Given the setting of the Movies that Matter Festival, perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘matters that matter’. An important idea in Latour’s philosophy, is that ‘things’ or ‘nonhumans’ should also be regarded actors. Normally, this privilege is reserved for people by modern philosophers. Latour shows that some ‘things’ are more influential than some people. He defines an actor as ‘that was was made to act by others’. To act is always a collective process. It takes more than just humans.
The film shows clearly how the pieces of art that Ai Wei Wei creates can move people. They are actors that are ‘made to act’ by Ai, his workshop assistants, a bunch of tools, thousands of years of Chinese history and the billion of Chinese now living.Together, they turn ‘matters of concern’ into ‘matters that move’.
A public of sunflower seeds?
One of Ai’s most acclaimed works was his 2010 exhibition of a 100 million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The sheer volume of seeds becomes even more impressive when you get to know that they are hand-painted pieces of porcelain. Sadly, the exhibition was changed when all the walking turned out to produce porcelain dusts that are harmful to people with asthma. It became a ‘matter of concern’, in its museum context. This piece of art created an unexpected public of its own.
I went to see a smaller version of the exhibition in Museum de Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, a week ago. This ‘matter of concern’ has some very unfortunate side-effects. It looses all its playful seriousness. The seeds are ‘squared in’, and are constantly guarded. There is a one-meter-distance norm.
Karl Marx is said to have asked: ‘How can you have a revolution if you can’t get people to walk on the grass’. This piece of art is made to be tread upon. What are we supposed to do when we are no allowed? I wish I had had the courage to defy the guards, take off my shoes, and run barefoot across the sunflower seeds. I think Ai Weiwei would have.