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Ai Weiwei's Exhibit (and Middle Finger) Arrive in Toronto

Posted: 08/15/2013 12:28 pm

An earthquake thundered in Sichuan five years ago, unleashing devastation, a gush of tears, and one man's torrid imagination. Eighty-seven thousand people died in the Sichuan disaster; 5,335 of them were children, almost all of whom perished in dilapidated schools built by the government. A few weeks after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei travelled approximately 1,500 kilometres from Beijing to the razed province in south-central China.

"I write every day, sometimes two articles a day," Ai has said. "In Sichuan, I couldn't write for a week. It was devastating. I was speechless."

He was far from powerless, however. Ai took photographs and videos of the ruined towns. Most poignantly, he collected hundreds of knapsacks, which had been left strewn in rubble, the most awful kind of litter you could imagine. The knapsacks belonged to the children whose deaths have inspired Ai to change his world through relentless attempts to make the Chinese government more transparent and accountable.

Ai turned the backpacks into a serpent, a black-and-white polyester statement about what he believes is China's treacherous treatment of its impoverished citizens and government corruption. The serpent is a symbol thick with meaning in China and Ai's use of it in this context -- with the backpacks representing the blood of the Sichuan children -- is his way of shouting, "This is what you really are."

Made from 883 knapsacks, Snake Ceiling has hovered on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario since this spring. The rest of the "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" exhibit begins its only Canadian appearance this weekend at the Toronto museum. It is a thought-provoking showcase of an artist who is affecting the world while in his prime -- a rarity. Ai has gone from mischievous rebel who would photograph his upraised middle finger in front of icons such as the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square to a gutsy critic with a clear focus on doing whatever he can to break China away from its old and anachronistic policies and predilections.

"It's not often you get to talk about art and the state of the world at the same time," AGO's director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum said during a news conference on Wednesday that unveiled the exhibit. "When you can place in front of a community an artist who is struggling to be heard, it is an important moment."

Vacay.ca Tells You How to See Ai Weiwei Speaking to Toronto via Skype

His rebelliousness left Ai under house arrest in Beijing two years ago. That was a bad move by China. Not just for the image of oppression it presents to the world, but for the fact that confining your most outspoken critic to his studio is akin to forcing a teenage hacker to remain locked in his parents' basement with four desktop computers and unlimited Internet access. Relegated to his studio called 258 Fake, Ai created more provocative art that challenges the Chinese regime he has already embarrassed time and again. The government also detained him for 81 days, citing a range of charges, banned his blog and name from appearing on search engines within China, and confiscated his passport, another act that has served to make a martyr of him. Activists around the world have rallied to raise awareness. A "Free Ai Weiwei" campaign has snaked through the art world and student campuses and into some mainstream outlets. In May, Ai released his first music video, set to the expletive-rich song "Dumbass" that swipes once more at government restrictions.

While Ai's more sophisticated (re: non-oral) work re-imagines traditional Chinese symbols and materials, his influences are from the west. They include Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, artists whose modern pieces he became familiar with during his 12 years spent in the United States from 1981-93. His art raises universal questions about freedom of expression and human rights in an increasingly globalized world.

"It's not just for Asians or for the Chinese community, but for all of us living in contemporary times. It speaks fundamentally to issues of our era," says Mami Kataoka of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, which has brought the exhibit to North America for a five-city tour.

Want an umbrella with Ai Weiwei's middle finger? See that photo and other images, and read the rest of this article, on Vacay.ca.

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  • An art projection by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei appears on the 74-foot marble First Amendment tablet on the exterior of the Newseum in Washington, DC, on January 17, 2013. Ai is recognized as an advocate of universal human rights and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government's stance on democracy. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: Images and quotes by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei are seen projected on a 74-foot-tall marble First Amendment tablet on the exterior of the Newseum on January 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. The exhibit runs 7 p.m. each night through January 17. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows the art work 'Divina Proportione' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows the art work 'Fake' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows the art work 'Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows the art work 'Colored Vases' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People stand next to the art work entitled 'Descending Light' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla on February 8, 2013. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows the art work 'Sunflower Seeds' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A picture taken on February 8, 2013 shows part of the art work 'Sunflower Seeds' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A man looks at the art work entitled 'Descending Light' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla on February 8, 2013. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People stand next to the art work entitled 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla on February 8, 2013. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A couple look at a video by Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei during an exhibition at the monastery of La Cartuja-Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Sevilla on February 8, 2013. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Chinese artist Ai Weiwei photographs a cat inside his home on the day of his court hearing, in Beijing on July 20, 2012. Ai is unlikely to win a multi-million-dollar tax case that was filed against a company he founded when a court announces a verdict, the activist's lawyer said. (Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages)

  • This file photo taken on June 25, 2012 shows Chinese artist Ai Weiwei speaking to AFP inside his compound in Beijing. A Chinese court has rejected a bid by internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei to fight a 2.4 million USD fine for tax evasion, the artist said September 27, 2012. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In a photo taken on June 25, 2012 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses for a photo inside his compound in Beijing. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Indian photographer Dayanita Singh will represent Germany at next year's Venice Biennale international art exhibition, German organisers said on September 19, 2012. (Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages)

 

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