Within days of arriving here in Florence, I saw a blockbuster exhibition of the work of a genius.
Ai Weiwei, Chinese contemporary artist and political activist, is a Bad Boy in the very best, most valuable meaning of the term. Brilliant and irrepressible –despite an entire government’s efforts to squelch him, he is a master of communication. He possesses a mind-boggling capacity to rethink ordinary objects into messages beyond powerful. And a dazzling ability to condense complex emotions and sear them into one’s consciousness in one potent package.
|This was the first piece I saw, and it knocked me out. I just love it when|
someone does something that makes me think, "Why hasn't everyone thought of that?"
Ai comes by these capabilities honestly. His father was the revered poet Ai Qing, friend to beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was denounced by the government in 1958, when Ai Weiwei was only a year old. Weiwei spent his first four years in a labor camp and the next sixteen with his family in exile in Shihezi, Xinjiang.
Shortly after the family returned to Beijing in 1976, he enrolled in film school to study animation, but it wasn’t long before he was teaming up with other avant garde artists to create works that called attention to government brutality and corruption.
Ai made it abroad in 1981, spending the next twelve years in the US, almost all of it in New York. He made friends with his father’s admirer Ginsberg, studied art, drew street portraits and did odd jobs to earn a living, and let the works of Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol work their spell on his imagination. He also became a card sharp, as a top-tier backjack player!
In 1993, his father became ill, and Ai returned to China. Over the next twenty-five years, he earned an international reputation for his work. And the wrath of his government for his projects that criticize the administration.
One example of that was part of the exhibition I saw. It concerned the aftermath of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan province. Poorly constructed schools collapsed killing many children. Ai realized that the government was white-washing the tragedy and under-reporting the death toll. He went into action with a team determined to publicize how many children died. Their research—after a year of determined investigation—revealed that nearly 5400 children perished. Palazzo Strozzi had on view a film of an installation Ai made of one length of rebar for each child lost. Had that material been used properly in constructing the schools, many of the children would have escaped unharmed. See what I mean about reducing the message to its simplest and most basic thought.
I could stay up all night telling you stories of Ai Weiwei and his art. But here are two things I want you to know for sure. He has given his organizations and projects wonderful tongue-in-cheek names. The first after returning from New York was The East Village. He calls his company and studio in Beijing FAKE Design and another entity he leads Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. Then there was the Shanghai art exhibition called Fuck Off. The exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi had a series of photos of Ai giving the finger to many great icons of human civilization. Here are photos of some of those.
On the other side of the coin, he has been arrested and accused of “economic” or “unspecified suspected” crimes, once beaten so badly wile in custody that he needed surgery for cerebral haemorrhage. When not jailed, he has been kept under constant surveillance. With his incredible sense of the absurd, he watches his watchers in return, taking pictures of the people taking pictures of him. And in one film clip I saw, duping the spies into thinking he was in a car and then tailing the car that was supposedly tailing him and filming the whole episode. I loved it. And all of these and more. So much more.
|This snake is made out of backpacks sewn together.|
Icons of Florence, made with legos:
This portrait of Dante alone would have made me a fan!