Fighting with art, not weapons

Chinese artist and political dissident, Ai Weiwei, is known for doing work that questions and holds the Chinese regime accountable.

Ai is critical of the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights, and has been detained and imprisoned multiple times for speaking out against the Chinese government. He recently had his passport taken by Chinese authorities, preventing him from accompanying any of his art pieces out of the country.

In his personal time, Ai investigates government cover-ups and corruption. As an artist, he uses mediums such as photography and sculpture to declare his political beliefs.

One of Ai’s better-known pieces is the “Snake Bag,” a 55-foot-long snake made of 360 backpacks folded and sewn together.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, the piece represents the 5,000 school children who died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to poorly constructed schoolhouses. The piece is undoubtedly a nod to the exalted role of dragons in Eastern cultures, and represents the Chinese government as a source of devilish trickery, according to the website Art Practical.

Ai is also known for the portraits he constructs using Lego bricks. Just last year, Ai covered the floor of an Alcatraz room with his art piece “Trace.” The display consisted of six large Lego carpets depicting more than 175 prisoners of conscience, both from the past and present.

The piece contained six “zones,” each portraying roughly 30 portraits. This included people such as American privacy activist Edward Snowden, dishonorably discharged American soldier Chelsea Manning, human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng and Rwandan journalist Agnés Uwimana Nkusi, who was recently released from jail after four years of imprisonment.

This year, Ai is planning to create a piece on free speech called “Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei” for Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria using more Lego bricks.

Unfortunately, the artist recently hit a snag when the Lego company denied him a bulk order of their toy bricks, saying that it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works,” reported The Huffington Post.

Ai quickly denounced Lego for censoring public work. The artist posted a photo of Legos inside a toilet bowl and wrote: “As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. [The Lego company’s] refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.”

Thanks to the photo, many people have donated their Legos to Ai in order to help complete his piece.

Ai’s first collection spot was a red car parked in front of his Beijing studio. People were asked to give their donation through the car’s sunroof, and as more and more donation offers poured in, social media users created the hashtag #legoforaiweiwei to raise awareness.

Senior English major Bryan Santos believes art is significantly important in expressing politics. “It’s one way of understanding it better,” Santos said. “I do photography, and I think photo essays reveal a lot about everything.”

We are blessed to live in a country with an abundance of freedom and laws to protect that freedom. Having grown up in the U.S., we sometimes take for granted the freedom and liberties that this country grants us.

Sophomore business major Praise Ching talk about the fact that we take advantage of our rights, “Similar to our voting rights, people in the U.S.—especially in our generation—didn’t have to work for these rights. We don’t face any opposition when we exercise these rights.”

Ai is fighting to someday bring that sort of government to China.

“Ai Weiwei is one of the small but powerful forces moving the Chinese government into a place of democracy and transparency,” said Ching, who first became aware of Ai and his work through the story of his house arrest. “Coming from an Asian American perspective, I value free speech and the expression of ideas. The Chinese government has oppressed these rights and punished the people who are vocal about their opposition.”

Regarding freedom of speech, Santos added, “It’s hard to speak for China, because we’re not there. I don’t know how it feels to not have that freedom of expression.”

It’s true that we can’t personally say we understand what Ai and his people are going through.

But we can and should become more knowledgeable about their struggle and any ways in which we can help.

We are all children of God here on this earth. We do each other a disservice by remaining ignorant to the lives of people beyond our own backyards.

I encourage you to pick a place somewhere outside the U.S, select a hot topic (in Ai’s case, that would be freedom of speech) and then follow stories on that place and topic for at least two weeks to practice awareness.

This practice will hopefully diminish ignorance, replacing it with empathy and understanding of humanity as a whole as we put ourselves in the places of others for at least a short time.