Who inspires me? (Ai Weiwei Edition)
Ai Weiwei 艾未未 is one of my absolute favorite artists and someone who truly inspires me.
I have been thinking about him a lot lately. He has just released a new book, a memoir about him and his father’s life called 1,000 Joys and Sorrows which I hope to read. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing him and artist Theaster Gates speak in an online venue done by Writer’s Bloc. (I love learning from living artists.)
If you are unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, he is a Chinese contemporary artist who is currently living in Europe. He is an artist and an activist. He uses a wide variety of mediums to create art – whatever is most fitting for the message each work contains. He does large-scale work and uses the help and craftsmanship of many people to bring his visions to life.
Ai Weiwei first entered my life when I was living in Canada, and I read about his work Sunflower Seeds online. Soon after his documentary about his art and life in China called Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry came out. I remember I went by myself to this little independent theater in the city to see the film in 2012. It blew my mind. I had spent time in China. I was an artist and had a love of sculpture and installation work. I had visited the Olympic Bird’s Nest which he helped design. I remember the earthquake in Sichuan. I had sat at tables with Chinese friends eating handfuls of sunflower seeds while drinking tea. It resonated with me. Learning about his work, the way he works, the environment affecting his work, the life experiences influencing his work, it gave me a new perspective on art, on being an artist, and on life in China.
Ai Weiwei’s work is moving.
The first time I saw his art in person was at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2013. I was beyond giddy to see his work up close. I dragged a few friends with me to the exhibit. They thought I had lost my mind a little bit because of my level of excitement! They had a greater understanding and appreciation after seeing the work themselves. It’s hard not to be moved by the snake of children’s backpacks across the ceiling when you are confronted with the names and ages of the dead school children from the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, which collapsed poorly constructed schools. You actually hear the names being read – names that are for most, if not all of these families, their only child. Ai Weiwei’s work is emotive and challenging and thought-provoking. Repetition, scale, and symbolism – like the hundreds of backpacks – are his greatest tools.
Ai Weiwei’s work is conceptual.
Art can be so many things with Ai Weiwei. He is a great example of a conceptual artist. The concept is often the most important thing. Sometimes his art is quick and responsive, the art of Twitter or a snapshot taken in a moment, or the dropping of a vase caught on video. Other times projects take years: to gather materials from damaged buildings, to do research on names, to make and paint millions of porcelain sunflower seeds. But each work has purpose, contains truth, makes a statement. And this has brought trouble to his door in very real ways.
Ai Weiwei’s work is courageous.
He is in constant dialogue with the world around him whether that is Chinese culture, China’s government, the refugee crisis, Swiss banking, capitalism, or the art world. I am inspired by his bravery, his creativity, his ingenuity, his humility, and his voice. He has high values of truth and freedom. It is important to hear his perspective on things as someone who is Chinese and is a product of China’s past and of time outside China – he spent several years in America as a young man and now (no longer able to live in China), is experiencing life in Europe. He has seen and experienced many things from multiple angles. He brings a needed perspective to the art world and to us all.
His work reveals beauty in unexpected places. He makes beautiful things from ugly truths.
He does beautiful acts to memorialize and bring truth to light.
Ai Weiwei’s work is inspiring.
I look forward to reading his book and to seeing what future art and dialogue he creates, and I wish him well in his nomadic life. I’m sure I will continue to be inspired by him, and now, hopefully, you will too.