Ai WeiWei: the unapologetic revolutionary

Vancouver Biennale

Ai WeiWei Film Retrospective

Never Sorry, The Fake Case

April 13,  20, 26, Rio Theatre, 6 p.m.



By Katherine Monk

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent mass rallies in the name of free expression, it would seem the artist’s role in society has never been more at risk. Then again, none of us lived through The Spanish Inquisition. Or, for that matter, has any real recollection of the black suit soap opera called the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Artists have a habit of winding up in the crosshairs of history because if they’re any good, they make us question the world we take for granted and see anew. “A revolution in form is a revolution in essences,” said Jose Marti, the Cuban poet, novelist and political activist immortalized in Guantanamera, a song made popular by famed protest singer Pete Seeger.

Marti’s words apply just as readily to art as it does to politics, and society as a whole: Once we start to alter the shape and mechanics of any given construct, we inevitably change what it is, and in turn, our reaction and relationship to it.

Art is a powerful transformative tool, and proof of that power is witnessed by the fact Marti was exiled to Spain for his early writings against the government, and Pete Seeger – the American folk singer, war veteran and icon — was called before HUAC and grilled for singing Woody Guthrie songs such as This Land is Your Land.

The last major artist to face such extreme censorship was China’s genius creator and all-round shit-disturber, Ai WeiWei, who was arrested and jailed for 81 days by Chinese authorities in 2011.

Ai recently completed the Alcatraz exhibit in San Francisco highlighting human rights and freedom of expression, and this week, Vancouver kicks off an Ai WeiWei film retrospective to bring added context to ‘f Grass,’ a new site-specific sculpture at Harbour Green Park that features 1328 tufts of iron grass arranged in the letter F.

It’s a fancy letter F, the kind you might find on a Gutenberg press. “The letter F stands for the letter F,” Ai told a reporter, adding “grass is a vulnerable, weak seasonal plant and I normally relate to a lot of fragile things, things with no way to resist any kind of force.”

Ai likens his iron grass to tiny anti-tank barriers, a poetic affirmation of the weak becoming strong through unity, which is exactly when and how art becomes more than an elegantly and originally assembled collection of crafted materials, and becomes a piece of revolutionary artwork.

What’s the difference between “revolutionary artwork” and “propaganda?” Clearly, it’s a matter for endless debate, but art commissioned by the state, and aimed at glorifying the state before the people, is often just propaganda. While work created from oppression that explores the human spirit and its power to transcend and question the status quo has a good chance at becoming revolutionary art. But it’s a blurry line at best.

Alberto Korda, the photographer who shot the iconic frame of Che Guevara that graces everything from head shop Ts to anarchy rallies, had to write an open letter “From Journalists to Journalists” explaining the image wasn’t designed as propaganda, but as news reportage. “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution are newsworthy,” Korda wrote. “To the pleasure of some, and the displeasure of others.”

Barrie Mowatt, founder and president of the Vancouver Biennale, says Ai’s work causes a similar sense of friction.

“Ai WeiWei’s ‘f Grass’ in its medium provokes discussion,” says Mowatt, proud presenter of ‘f Grass’ as well as the three-night film retrospective.

“From a strict visual perspective, it can be viewed as both ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly.’ Add the cultural references that provoked its creation, and it takes on another level of awareness.”

Mowatt, who also brought Oliver Stone, and more recently the OSGEMEOS twins, to Vancouver with new work says “art is most often a precursor of the public mindset whether that art form is film, sculpture, installation, design, painting, digital media, words, etc…

“Society follows the artist’s lead. But as with Ai WeiWei and many artists who come from nations where human rights and freedom of speech are limited and controlled by religion or government, the most powerful art forms that evolve are often subtle creations that become metaphors for messages: images not readily defiant but subliminally recognized by the thoughtful and intuitive.”

Mowatt’s words bring us back to the sentiment uttered by Marti, about a revolution in form being a revolution of essences. Great art challenges not just our understanding of the world as it is, but our own identity in relation to the larger whole.

Revolutionary art repositions the viewer. From a position of distance and detachment, it pulls the viewer in through a sense of identification—that this is a world we can all be a part of. More importantly, as Ai’s ‘f Grass’ infers, it suggests the individual can achieve an exponentially greater sense of meaning when acting with others, which always makes the dominant power a little defensive.

The Ai WeiWei film series kicks off April 13 at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver with screenings of Never Sorry, The Fake Case and a discussion with Barrie Mowatt and Katherine Monk. The series continues April 20 with a screeningsof Ai WeiWei’s Appeal for 15,220,910.50 Yuan, and April 26 with Disturbing the Peace, So Sorry and The Crab House.

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Guernica (Pablo Picasso): Completed in June 1937, this black and white mural is credited with bringing the world’s attention to the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by the bombing of Guernica, the expansive piece depicts the horrors of war, from dead children to wounded animals and exposed human skulls.


Unknown-1Man at the Crossroads, Controller of the Universe (Diego Rivera): If you saw the movie Cradle Will Rock, you know Rivera was commissioned to create a mural for Rockefeller Centre. Work on Man at the Crossroads began in 1933, but was halted for political reasons because the mural contained a portrait of Lenin. The mural was destroyed, but Rivera repainted it in Mexico City, calling it Man, Controller of the Universe.



Third of May (Francisco Goya): Groundbreaking for its documentary-like presentation of the what happened the day after a citizen’s uprising against Napoleon, The Third of May shows the execution of revolutionaries by Napoleon’s army. According to art historian Kenneth Clark, it’s the first painting “to be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention.”




Liberty Leading the People (Eugene Delacroix): Victor Hugo may have written Les Misearables, but there’s little doubt the stage production was inspired by Eugene Delacroix’s iconic canvas depicting a goddess-like woman leading the masses over barricades. Painted in 1830, the piece commemorates the July rebellion, which toppled King Charles X of France. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, Delacroix felt it was his duty. “If I haven’t fought for my country, at least I will paint for her.”




Che Guevara Photo (Alberto Korda): On March 5, 1960, news photographer for Revolucion Alberto Korda attended the state funeral for victims of the munitions freighter La Coubre. “I was about eight or ten meters from the podium where Fidel was speaking… suddenly I noticed Che approaching the railing bedside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir… I had him in focus and took one shot, then another.”



Unknown-2Remembering (Ai WeiWei): Created from 9000 children’s backpacks stretched across the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Ai’s piece remembers the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Each backpack represents a child lost, while the script is a quote from one of the grieving mothers:  “For seven years she lived happily on this earth.”




The Impending Nisga’a Deal Last Stand, Chump Change (Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun): The Vancouver-based First Nations artist has always been interested in raising awareness about the white boxes we live in and famously shot the Indian Act as an “Indian Act” performance piece. In this 1996 canvas that’s now part of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection, Yuxweluptun shows us a landscape laid to waste by a blue-eyed white form walking away with his black briefcase while the First Nations characters are left to survey the ruins of their culture.





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