I have been visiting Toronto, Canada, this week placing my son in a pre-boarding academy at his new school. I had 10 days between dropping him off and picking him up so decided to stay here, set up business meetings to try to generate future work and strategy ideas that eventually may help pay for the world-class education he will be receiving. I took a quick look at the cultural events that were available during my stay. When I saw that Ai Weiwei’s traveling exhibit, “According to What?” was on at the Art Gallery of Ontario I knew I had to set aside time to visit. What a moving experience! Read on.
If you don’t know, Ai Weiwei is one of China’s leading contemporary artists. However, that short – almost pithy – definition really does the man, and his body of work, a severe injustice. He is, on a macro level, the consummate social voice of his country. On a micro level, he is an artist, an architect, a blogger, a photographer, a documentary videographer, to name but a few areas of interest he turns his prodigious talent towards. He is, as he summed up in his book of blog posts, a voice of honour against abusive authority and ‘shameless people with one foot in the system and the other out the door‘. “May 14, 2006, As Soon as You’re Not Careful … an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day.”
While traveling I made a commitment to myself to exercise and write a blog post daily. Well, neither has happened to the level that I planned on. 7 days in and I am at three runs and one blog post. Hardly a good record.
How does this relate to the exhibit that I toured?
Well, the exhibit is, in my opinion, a metaphorical slap in the face for anyone who does not achieve their full potential. The exhibit should make anyone who has any aspiration of producing creative work at once feel small, inadequate, insignificant; and at the same time INSPIRED, OBSERVANT, and CHALLENGED.
In the introductory video entering the exhibit, Ai Weiwei bluntly states that he does not do much of the physical act of producing the pieces he imagines. As with many prolific artists he time slices extraordinarily well and spends his time creating and directing production, work that is often very technical and time-consuming. As creative as he is, this delegation of tasks is key to the prolific body of work across widely differing mediums. He demonstrates in this the key business skill of delegation.
You cannot walk through the exhibit space and not come away thinking that as much as you may do in your life, you really live in a bubble, with Ai Weiwei being one of those ethereal beings that actually live in a world outside that sphere. I mean, really live. Taking ordinary items like bicycles and creating an art structure from them has probably been done on some level by others. Prominently using the prototypical bike of the old planned economy of China, the ‘Forever’ brand of bicycle is genius metaphor as first market choice and second a transfer from cycle transport to motor cars has led to the decline to insignificance of the people’s brand that was to live ‘Forever’.
The real takeaway of the exhibition has to be the bold, brave, commentary through art, architecture, protest and writing, of the social injustice and abuse that often lies just below the surface of modern China. Ai Weiwei sharply throws the veneer of normal on its head and produces statements through art, juxtaposed imagery, and words. These have cost him (and his friends and family) dearly through harassment, arrest and loss of his online works with the state shutdown of his blog. Yet, even in this he finds ways to raise the metaphorical middle finger at the apparatus of the state. Having organized a party to commemorate the planned demolition by the government of his recently built art studio, he was placed under house arrest in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of the protest event. For most that would have been the end of the matter. However, his genius used even this setback as further protest by having guests come along anyway, without his attendance, and to feast on river crab, a wordplay in Chinese on the word “harmony”, and a subtle way to poke fun at official censorship. He was released the next day. The studio was later torn down). To commemorate the incident he produced an installation piece of using hundreds of plastic river crabs. In this he took the restrictions placed on him and amplified its effect of his simple reaction.
These three simple examples I have taken from the exhibits impact on me really do the work a disservice. There is so much there, including the particularly moving ‘Citizens’ Investigation’ to record the names of thousands of children killed due to shoddy construction of schools in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, either here in Toronto, or wherever it travels next, take time out of your day to do so. Not much in life can be guaranteed. I would go out on a limb, however, and guarantee that you will be moved by this man’s work, and through it, be inspired to observe and challenge yourself, your work, your impact on your sphere of influence.
Have you seen the exhibit? Do you have a particular piece of work of his (or another artist) that has had an impact on you? Please share in a comment if you can. It is always great to see the perspective of my readers and to start a conversation around the content of a post.