The moment I laid eyes on Ai Weiwei’s installation Forever Bicycles at the Fundación Proa in the La Boca neighborhood, I was captivated. I had to make a visit to see the entire exhibit “Inoculación” and learn about this contemporary Chinese artist and activist through his work and later through online videos and articles. A big fan of bicycles and bicycling, as well as using multiple representations of objects, I was instantly attracted to his art-making and also to his activism and how his activism IS his art.
The exhibit itself includes examples of his video work, installations, collaborative projects, wallpapers, and sculptures. In addition to Forever Bicycles which begs the viewer to take one’s own views of the playful structure as I did here:
The exhibit at Próa, entitled “Inoculación” is a good overview of some of his best know installations.
Bicycles Forever (a popular brand in China) was first exhibited in Taipei in 2003. Of it Weiwei said:
The bicycle is one of the few objects every household had when I was growing up I. China. Society then was very poor. To have a bike was a luxury. Forever bicycles were the best brand at the time. Every family had a Forever bicycle, it would be the most admirable for the rest of the children, they would even run after the bicycle.
Since I started doing architecture and teaching students how to build, I use the bicycle to teach them they can build with any material, not just bricks and concrete. (excerpt describing artwork on building exterior)
Each installation of Forever Bicycles is a unique design. The one used in Buenos Aires is composed of 1254 bicycles.
A second well-known installation on display here fills the entire floor of one gallery. It is known simply as Sunflower Seeds. The work contains more than 100 million individually handmade and handprinted porcelain sunflower seeds created by more than 1600 people living in Jingdezhan (the porcelain capital in China) over a two-and-a-half year period. The seeds are not only nourishing as well as a common street snack in China, but the Chinese people themselves have been called sunflowers who looked obediently at the sun (Mao’s way of referring to himself). Imagine: each seed is made and painted by hand! And each is unique.
Weiwei is definitely unique himself. The son of a well-known Revolutionary poet who was exiled to hard labor for 20 years during the Cultural Revolution, Weiwei left China to study art in the US, and returned there ten years later, once his father was restored to his rightful place as a respected poet, writer, and cultural icon.
Artist, architect, sculptor, activist for human rights and against communist repression,
Weiwei has spoken about many subjects and has been described as “pioneering in his art and fearless in his politics,” according to a 2005 BBC documentary (available on YouTube). One wall in the exhibit is filled with some of his sayings.
On freedom and liberty he says:
Freedom is our right to question everything.
To express oneself one needs a reason, but expression itself is the reason.
On art and being an artist:
Art has to do with aesthetics, with morality, with our belief in humanity. Without that, there is simply no art.
Being an artist is a mindset, a way of seeing things; it no longer has much to do with producing something.
On refugees and the crisis of immigration:
This problem has a long history, a human story. Somehow we all are refugees, somewhere at some time.
Nationality and borders are barriers to our intelligence, our imagination and all kinds of possibilities.
I especially enjoyed being able to take photos of the various installed works in the show, such as these two. The first is “Grapes” and uses centuries-old wooden stools reassembled by artisans into this sculpture:
The other more obviously explores one of Weiwei’s chosen themes or issues, this time immigration into a wallpaper of passengers’ luggage tags:
Weiwei doesn’t hold back. Banned by the Chinese government for the freedom of expression he has given voice to, Weiwei is sometimes brutally direct, as in this commentary not foreign to anyone in any language. Giving the finger is, well, giving the finger!
There are some powerful videos included in the exhibit. One shows Weiwei smashing a priceless Ming vase, commenting obviously on its past value and commenting on what he thinks about that value. A more powerful, sad video is one that tells the story of the 2010 art studio Weiwei received permission to build by the Shanghai government, only to be told (as it was being completed!) it was NOT permitted by the very same government who subsequently and swiftly demolished the architectural studio/classroom/exhibit space. Whether banished from the internet in China, put in prison and silenced, or creating and exhibiting his art in collaboration with the hundreds of workers he employs to assist in turning his conceptions into actual objects, Weiwei lets his art and his actions voice his deepest beliefs in freedom and human rights.
Check out the web for videos by and about Ai Weiwei.
Happy holidays two!