Mediums of Dissent

By: Adia Sykes

Modern ideas of conceptual and performance art are challenging the strict conventions of abstract expressionism and formal remoteness by forcing audiences to engage with political messages in the works. In the same way that the antiwar music of the Vietnam era took the guitar strumming of the previous generation from coffee houses, augmented it, and sent the message to college dorm rooms and the homes of the youth of America the contemporary art activist has amplified the works of the Dada movement to provoke social activism.

Photo Credit: Mike Castillo

Photo Credit: Mike Castillo

Dada, an artistic movement of the early 20th-century, was one of the largest movements to translate art into provocative action. Dadaist art assumed many forms including outrageous performances, festivals, found objects, and photomontages of political satire. For example, in 1913 French artist Marcel Duchamp created the first of his sculptures in which he elevated everyday objects such as bicycle wheels or bottle racks to the status of fine art by simply exhibiting them in a gallery and pronouncing them as so to challenge the accepted modes of artistic expression. Taking root in New York and Western Europe circa 1915, Dada produced some of the most overtly antibourgeois, antimilitarism, radical, and playful works of the 20th century.

Today, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is taking the philosophy of Dadaism to new heights. On May 12, 2008 Ai barely felt the tremors of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that rattled the Sichuan province from his home in northeast Beijing. But as the death toll rose into the tens of thousands in the following days, his outrage at the Chinese government’s response –or lack there of—reverberated throughout the Chinese populace. For Ai, this disaster was both a heartbreaking and existential moment. It shaped his iconoclastic works that would later secure him a permanent spot on the Chinese government’s watch list.

Ai Weiwei’s conscientious dissent through art has reached a critical mass of influence the world over. Ai’s exhibits in the Western world have pushed the message of protest beyond China’s boarders and into the minds of the global community. His October 2009 to January 2010 show “So Sorry” in Munich, Germany served as a retrospective of the devastation and lives lost during the May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province. Ai constructed a piece entitled Remembering by covering the façade of the Haus der Kunst with nine thousand children’s backpacks. They spelled out the phrase “She lived happily for seven years in the world” in Chinese characters, a quote from a mother who lost their child in the earthquake. He also exhibited Sunflower Seeds in October 2010 at the Tate Modern in London, England. Ai covered the floor of Turbine Hall with over one hundred million hand painted porcelain seeds. Viewers were encouraged to walk over the work in order to immerse themselves in the effects of mass consumption of Chinese industry.

Ai’s increasingly vocal opposition to the current Chinese regime reached its apex after his investigation into the faulty construction and virtual nonexistence of civil engineering laws in the Sichuan that led to the complete obliteration of the schools there. In honor of the victims of the earthquake, Ai published a list of their names on his blog, which reached his ever-expanding fan base. This act catapulted Ai into the crosshairs of the Chinese government, making him the subject of police harassment and brutality. On April 3, 2011 Ai was arrested in a Beijing airport while trying to board a plane to Hong Kong. He was taken into custody that day under the guise of, “…economic crimes”. Beijing police released a statement in which they accused Ai Weiwei and his design firm of alleged tax evasion, but refused to provide further explanation for the arrest. Ai’s global community of followers and international organizations such as Amnesty International launched themselves into campaigns demanding his release, imploring China to adhere to human rights norms. Upon his release Ai has twice moved to appeal the charges of tax evasion, both of which the court ruled on without a hearing and barred Ai from attending. These acts are in direct violation of China’s National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015) that was submitted by the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations office at Geneva in which China guarantees litigants not only the right to a fair trial but also the right to pre-trial preparation.

Ai’s arrest and trial raises questions about the role of the artist and right to artistic expression in contemporary China. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council issued their Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression on May 16, 2011 in which they address the criminalization of legitimate expression. The Special Rapporteur expresses concern that modes of legitimate self-expression are being criminalized in violation of human rights obligations, and asserts that this practice is frequently used to, “…censor content that the Government and other powerful entities do not like or agree with”.  Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment and unethical trial are evidence of Chinese government’s stronghold on both the police force and judicial system and its attempt to stifle dissident voices.

The opening of Ai Weiwei’s first North American exhibit, entitled “Ai WeiWei: According to What?,” at the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. is evidence of this lionhearted contemporary artist’s refusal to be silent.

Adia Sykes is a first year in the College.