An exhibition in Seoul brings together pieces on the theme of freedom of expression by Ai Weiwei, who recently received Òmnium Cultural’s J. B. Cendrós Award for human rights defenders.
Ai Weiwei: Defend the Future
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA)
Until 17 April 2022
According to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the most important quality in a revolutionary is the ability to always “feel deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world”. Ai Weiwei, one of the most influential Chinese artists, was born in Beijing in 1957 and grew up in Xinjiang, a region in the western part of the country where his father had been banished by the Communist government. Twenty years would pass before his father was rehabilitated and the family could return to Beijing. Whether as a result of his personal circumstances, or his encounter with Chinese avant-garde groups in the late 1970s, or another factor entirely, Ai Weiwei embraced Che’s message, and through his works, paintings, photographs, installations, films, public art and even ceramics, has devoted himself to defending freedom of expression and speaking out against oppression and injustice.amb els col·lectius de l’avantguarda xinesa a la fi dels anys 70, sigui com sigui, Ai Weiwei va fer seu el lema del Che i amb les seves obres, pintures, fotografies, instal·lacions, pel·lícules, art públic i fins i tot ceràmiques, es va dedicar a defensar la llibertat d’expressió i a denunciar l’opressió i les injustícies.
He recently received the International Joan Baptista Cendrós Award from Òmnium Cultural, a leading organisation for the defence of the Catalan language and culture, in recognition of his long career defending human rights and his commitment to denouncing Spain’s repression of the sovereignty movement in Catalonia. In December 2018, the artist visited Catalan independence activist and Òmnium president Jordi Cuixart during his imprisonment, and participated in the ceramics workshop for inmates as a guest teacher. “Ai Weiwei is a clear example of how neither repression, nor imprisonment, nor exile can limit the defence of rights and freedoms,” Cuixart said during the award ceremony, referring to the repression that the artist has endured and that forced him into exile in Europe, first in Berlin and now in Cambridge (Great Britain).
At the same time, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul (which was directed by Bartomeu Marí after resigning from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art), is dedicating an extensive exhibition to his work. Though not exactly a retrospective, it brings together his most significant pieces in defence of freedom of expression and the basic rights of the most vulnerable, addressing situations such as the plight of refugees, which is becoming more dire every day under the complicit gaze of Western governments.
The Ai Weiwei:Defend the Future exhibition is a journey through his artistic career, displaying some 120 pieces that include a 12-metre bamboo figure inspired by jade burial suits made as armour for Han Dynasty emperors, a Neolithic vase with the Coca-Cola logo, and a documentary about the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority sadly known for having been the target of an attempted genocide by the Burmese government. “This exhibition shows the social duty of art, as well as the aesthetic achievements of the artist. It is an opportunity for visitors, as global citizens, to reflect on the value of life and human dignity,” says Youn Bummo, current director of the MMCA.
The works on display include Black Chandelier, a black Murano glass chandelier created in collaboration with the famous Berengo Studio on the Venetian island of Murano. Instead of reflecting light, it absorbs it, and on close inspection, one can see it is made up of representations of human bones and skulls. Hanging from the ceiling is the equally striking is Life Vest Snake, created in 2019, a giant snake made out of life jackets that refugees took off when they arrived on the island of Lesbos. Like a shed snakeskin, these life jackets bring to mind nameless and faceless people who we know nothing about, not even whether they have been able to start new lives somewhere or rather lost their lives on their journey.
It is not the first piece that Ai Weiwei has made out of the clothes and other items that immigrants leave behind on the path towards hope. In his 2016 installation Laundromat, the artist gathered together clothing left behind by refugees after the Greek government cleared the camp along the Macedonian border crossing of Idomeni and forced out those who had been living there. After taking the pieces of clothing to his studio in Berlin, he washed, repaired and ironed them and then used them to create an installation mimicking a laundromat storage room, to bring to mind the lives of the individuals, from babies to the elderly, who they had belonged to.
Like all famous artists, Ai Weiwei has his detractors, people who are convinced that his political and social commitment is nothing more than an advertising ploy, a way to sell his pieces. Clearly these people were not in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake, when the artist assembled a citizen search team to identify the victims, especially children who died under the rubble of poorly constructed school buildings. Nor were they in Mexico in 2019, when he went to talk with the families of the 43 missing students who were murdered in Ayotzinapa. He used these interviews to create the film Vivos and a collection of pieces that he presented in his exhibition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC), the first public museum created specifically for contemporary art in Mexico. The exhibition also included Ai Weiwei’s largest historical/political ready-made Ancestral Hall of the Wang Family, a wooden temple from the Ming Dynasty rebuilt piece by piece to denounce the destruction of China’s cultural heritage, first by the violence of the revolution and later by the antiquities trade.