About this image: Last month, on the closing day (glad I didn’t wait any longer!) I visited the exhibit Ai Wei Wei: According to What? at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Ai Wei Wei is a conceptual artist and many of his works utilize traditional Chinese tools, materials and techniques. At the same time, his work calls into question tradition, current culture, and who gets to decide what is valuable within one’s culture. What makes something a relic? A work of art? Priceless? All questions that you can’t help think about when you look at photographs of Wei Wei dropping — and, of course, shattering — a piece of Han dynasty pottery, or when you look at similar urns that have been dipped in paint, or had 21st century logos painted on them. According to what? Or to whom? Who gets to decide what is art or culture? It didn’t take long in the exhibit before you begin to realize why Ai Wei Wei is under constant surveillance by the Chinese government and has been beaten and imprisoned because of his work.
But ancient woodworking techniques and historical artifacts have little to do with the image above. The most moving pieces in the exhibit were Ai Wei Wei’s reaction to the tragic loss of children, entrapped in their schools, in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Wei Wei collected 150 tons of rebar from the quake sites. He also maintained a blog — until the Chinese government shut it down — listing the names of all of the children killed. He collected over 5000 names and the list is not complete. The bent and twisted rebar was straightened in his studio and an undulating sculptural work titled Straight has been made of this rebar. The piles of rebar make their own landscape; a crooked rift in the middle echos the earthquake fault. Accompanying Straight is a wall-length mural Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by Citizen Investigation as well as an audio recording reciting the names of the children. To say that the exhibit is haunting is an understatement.
I thought about this exhibit for many days after I visited. There was much more than what I have written about here. I regretted that I saw it on closing day, because I would have liked to have returned to see it again. (Heads up if you’re visiting Toronto soon: this exhibit is at the Art Gallery of Ontario through October 27.) I cannot imagine the grief of losing one’s child. That grief, repeated throughout a community, is overwhelming to think about.
I was looking through my iPhone photo gallery today, looking for pictures that I had snapped of things that were textural when I came upon the shots I took at the exhibit. I was searching for an assignment that I was working on for the Beyond Beyond class that I am participating in. I had been hoping to utilize portions of various photographs to create a texture to use in other photos. I kept returning to the images of Straight and Names of Student Earthquake Victims. I doubt that the texture I created will be used in other photographic work, but it seemed fitting to combine them with this quote by Wei Wei on names. After layering the flower image with the texture, I added another layer of the names. I can’t read one character of Chinese, but I still wanted the names of these children to be memorialized in my own, somewhat inept and limited way. It seemed fitting to use an image of a water lily — a symbol of peace and enlightenment in some cultures, of grief, overcoming struggles and resurrection in others — as part of this work. Nor could I ignore the quote by Wei Wei regarding the very humanness that is one’s name, just as I could not exclude the image of the names.
Say the names of your loved ones today. Let the whispers of their names — their identities — be imbued with their goodness, their kindness, their virtues. Keep them safe in your thoughts even if we cannot always keep them safe in the world.