“Turn nothing into something – make a drawing, make a mark. Connect with others through this space of imagination. Look at other people’s drawings and share them with the world. Be part of the growing community to celebrate how creative expression transcends external borders and internal constraints. We are in this world together.
Ideas, wind, and air no one can stop.” -Ai Weiwei
The power of words, language and art have been a venomous tool in protest for ages. The Chinese artist, architect and human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, has used art as a form of protest for decades in one of the most oppressive countries in the world. He made his voice heard through the use of film, sculptures and dynamic art as a medium to bring important political and social rights issues to the surface of the streets of China.
The power of expression was shared with Ai Weiwei since before he could walk. His father was Ai Qing, a poet and well known for his opposition against Mao Zedong. As a result of his father’s work, Ai Weiwei spent his childhood years in a work camp in Shehezi. It was after Mao Zedong’s trial and death that Ai Weiwei and his family were able to return to Beijing. He was 19 years old.
Ai Weiwei’s life has been rooted in activism as a result of his father’s advocacy. Ai Weiwei spent 12 years in the United States studying film, art and architecture before returning to China to care for his ailing father. It was upon his return that he began to make a bigger name for himself and his artwork. His focus was on human rights advocacy work where he partnered with others and cultivated creative teams to carry out larger projects. He was creating his own audibly silent but visually deafening protests against the Chinese government.
In May of 2008, a catastrophic earthquake shattered areas in the Sichuan province. The deaths of thousands of children was blamed on the poor construction of the schools in that area whose names were not released by the government. Through the rubble that covered the small bodies, Ai Weiwei launched a ‘citizens investigation’ and recruited volunteers that led to finding the names of 5,385 of the deceased. He has created numerous art pieces since that event to bring recognition to the deceased, as well to the poor building regulations and practices of China.
A year after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei was arrested for tax evasion and detained in solitary confinement for 81 days in an undisclosed location. While incarcerated his family did not know where he was, what he was being charge for or when he would return home. He showcases what those 81 days were like in his exhibition entitled S.A.C.R.E.D. An acronym for supper, accuser, cleansing, ritual, entropy and doubt. He feels that by staying silent about his detainment gave the Chinese government the power to do it again.
Ai Weiwei portrayed how his artistic and rebellious acts did not have to be large installations that required a team of people but took advantage of simplicity at times. For four years, his passport was in the possession of the Chinese government. During that time, Ai Weiwei continued to put on art show across the globe from the confines of his home with the help of others. His refusal to stop producing art, even while on house arrest, was an act of defiance in itself. His simple act of artistic expression took shape in the placement of a bouquet of flowers in his bicycle’s basket outside his home.
As of late, Americans have seen many protests and movements breaking out across the country. This is resulting in denser law enforcement presence and heavy policing, giving the look and feel of communist China in the days of Mao Zedong. For those that are avoiding criminal charges for being active participants in public protests across the nation, many are turning to artistic expression behind the scenes. Since the election of Trump, artists all over the world have been creating pieces in a reaction to the Balkanized society that has taken hold. The culture world is coming together to expel a resounding “no” in response to the actions taken since Trump’s short term in office.
Many artists are taking their chance to show their distaste for our change over in presidential office with bold statements, such as Andrea Bowers. Bowers creates mixed media images from residual materials leftover after protests. She also takes note of effective and powerful messaging that she finds in places of action, such as the protests on the Standing Rock Reservation at the site of the proposed Dakota Access pipeline. Things like cardboard signs are reused and layered upon one another to create new works. Her project “Don’t Touch Me” is made from cardboard remains and LED lighting to illuminate her bold statement.
Rather than creating a piece in response to the recent election of Trump, one artist is refusing to create a piece that has been 20 years in the works. The husband and wife artistic duo, Christo and Jean-Claude, had researched and petitioned to construct a work of art over the Arkansas river in Colorado to highlight the aesthetics for the area. The process was lengthy and bureaucratic in nature, requiring numerous permits from State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as a 1,686 page Environmental Impact Statement.
Christo spoke for himself and his late wife, Jean-Claude when announcing they would be retiring the self-funded project, Over the River, as a result of the Trump administration taking office. Christo, 81 years old, is a Bulgarian immigrant and was raised in a communist country. He told the NY Times, “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free. And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.”
There have been previous movements in history when artists have held strikes in protest of political happenings, such as the Art Strike in the 1970’s during the Vietnam war. The standoff on the day of the Art Strike was replicated in an act of defiance, disobedience and refusal of compliance on inauguration day of president Trump with a movement called J20. The day was supposed to show that business will not continue as usual and that the participants will not comply with Trump’s aim to bring bigotry, misogyny and militarism into their lives and hearts. Some artists disagree with the actions of Christo and actions such as J20. Some feel that it is empowering the individuals that they feel oppress art and culture by halting expressing thought and their creative minds.
The artistic displays that have arisen in response to our current presidential administration are meant to inspire, awaken and galvanize the people of America. Artistic statements are enticing others to not only visually see but to deeply comprehend that there is power in numbers and fighting for your rights and beliefs does not have to come in the form of violence or petition signing. The use of paint, plaster and mixed media is just as effective as a rally, strike or protest.
Author Bio: W.M. Chandler is a Colorado native and works best with her head in the clouds. She is an avid researcher and enjoys writing about unfamiliar subjects. She writes passionately about nature and the outdoors, human connections and relationships, art and politics.
Twitter Handle: @wmchandler1212