Memory & Justice: Ai Weiwei’s “Straight”
Whether you follow contemporary art or international politics, you’ve probably heard of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Renowned for his “Birds Nest” stadium at the Beijing Olympics, it was his social activism and criticism of the Chinese government that earned him 81 days of detention, house arrest and the loss of his passport. An intelligent artist and social commentator, his exhibit, Ai Weiwei: According to What? is currently touring the US. I had the opportunity to see it at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC last year. I’ve been blown away by the beauty of a painting before, but it wasn’t until Ai Weiwei’s piece “Straight” that I encountered a work of art so emotionally powerful that I am still thinking about it a year after seeing the show.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? is approximately divided into three sections exploring the artist’s biography, Chinese cultural history & modern identity, and the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Pieces range from photographs and objects to large installations. “Straight” is a massive floor piece that you more or less tip toe around as it takes up most of the room. Iron bars are laid out on the ground and stacked up in an undulating pattern. The use of short pieces creates gaps and cracks that run the entire length of the piece. My first impression was that this was maybe about industrialization and the environment with these bars depicting a barren landscape and a stark ravine. But then I noticed a documentary playing nearby which changed the piece completely.
May 12, 2008 at 2:28 pm an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan province in China. The area experienced horrendous devastation; 85,000 people were killed (or were missing) and 4.8 million were left homeless. One of the saddest outcomes of the earthquake was the collapse of numerous, poorly constructed national schools which killed over 5,000 children and teachers. Throughout 2008, the Chinese government refused to investigate the failure of these buildings. In response, Ai Weiwei and others initiated a Citizen’s Investigation and sent structural engineers to survey and analyze the damage.
The documentary running beside “Staight” provided this background and follows Ai Weiwei through areas of the devastation. We watch as an engineer explain in front of a tangled and toppled concrete pier how the building was poorly made and used sub-standard material. I distinctly remember him explaining that there were no hooks on the end of the rebar pieces which would normally anchor it into the concrete. Without this, the concrete and steel just slipped apart and didn’t provide the necessary structural support during the earthquake. In some shots, children’s back-packs and papers can be seen on the ground; lesson were still frozen on the classroom chalkboards. Many parents lost their only child in the earthquake and because families provide much of the care for their elderly, these parents in many ways lost their future. The documentary was a powerful look at a tremendous tragedy.
Here is a shorter version of this documentary that accompanied a different Ai Weiwei piece, “Forge,” which also examines the Sichuan earthquake.
The video on view also followed the construction of “Straight”. The Citizens Investigation collected over 200 tons of the scrap rebar from the ruined schools in Wenchuan. Ai Weiwei designed several works of art to be made with this material to memorialize the earthquake victims. For “Straight”, a team of workmen hammered each piece back to its original condition. The pieces were then laid out into their final positions.
It’s hard to look at “Straight” and not see all the people behind this piece. You can see those who constructed the schools with this very metal who whether because of ignorance or greed did not execute the job correctly. You can see the victims of the earthquake tragically killed by these bars. And you can see the citizens who stood up to investigate. The sheer effort of “repairing” these bars speaks to their dedication to the memory of those who died and their devotion to justice for them. “Straight” remains a somber memorial and also a powerful example of how art can and should act as social commentary.
A moving piece, I wish I’d gotten to see it. Having lived in China, I am all too aware of the less-than-ideal building practices and was always afraid of a repeat occurrence. What is kind of amazing, though, is that citizens are starting to speak out and art like this isn’t as uncommon as you might think, even on the mainland.
Thanks for your perspective. It’s exciting to hear that this kind of critical art is becoming more common. It’s a great step toward organic social change!
That documentary is SO good – gives me chills just thinking about it! Thanks for the reminder of how amazing he is. Hoping to see some of his work in person some day!
I totally understand the feeling! I had chills in the museum watching the video. Then imagine confronting all the steel in person after finding out its story.
I hope you do get to see his work soon! If you can make it to the coast, this show is in NYC and in the Fall a site specific installation will be on display at Alcatraz in San Francisco.