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Opinionated art

October 14, 2009

Widely known as a critic of the Chinese government, Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei isn't shy in his latest exhibition in Germany. He says he has no choice but to be an activist.

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei reflects on the destruction involved in China's modernizationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Even the facade of the Munich museum, Haus der Kunst, has been turned into an exhibition piece. It is currently adorned with 9,000 colored backpacks, which are arranged into letters. A phrase can be deciphered: "She lived happily on this earth for seven years."

These are the words of a grieving mother whose daughter was one of the thousands of children killed when their schools collapsed during the devastating earthquake in the Sichuan province last year.

"The school buildings caved in, thousands of people disappeared - including thousands of children - but the government doesn't want to release the names," said Ai Weiwei.

The phrase shouts out accusingly from the heart of Munich, drawing attention to corrupt politicians in China, which Ai Weiwei blames for the collapse of the schools that hadn't been built according to regulation.

"The poor are neglected and have no rights," said the artist, who has lived through many waves of repression in China and is a vociferous critic of China’s political system. "It's the character of dictatorship in the 21st century."

The title of the exhibition - "So Sorry" - mocks the apologies that politicians and influential figures in China have made in recent years.

"Template" by Ai Weiwei, part of the "So Sorry" exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich
The work "Template" incorporated wooden doors and windows from the Ming and Qing dynastiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Brutality of modernization

Ai Weiwei's political stance is reflected in his art and he examines the transformations that are going on in China today. For example, he sprays Neolithic vases that are over 6,000 years old with cheap industrial paint and works with wood from temples that are centuries old and are being torn down to make way for shopping malls.

In several of his works, he has run thick logs through antique wooden tabletops, creating an effect that is both brute and elegant at the same time.

"During the Cultural Revolution, breaking things was encouraged - you were a good Red Guard or Maoist if you broke very valuable things," said Ai Weiwei. "Our nation does not pay much attention to those things."

Against the background of traditional Chinese aesthetic, the works on show in Munich reflect the brutality of China's modernization process.

Art and dictatorship

Wanting to control knowledge and collection memory is a fundamental characteristic of dictatorships: In China, most young people have never even heard about the 1989 crackdown of the pro-democracy movement that had sprung up in the communist country.

In Germany, under the Nazi dictatorship during the 1930s and 1940s, propaganda was used to control which elements of history could be remembered, and which were taboo.

Ai Weiwei draws on the theme of dictatorship in his exhibition, pointing out that Hitler had commissioned the building of the Haus der Kunst as a play to display German art.

In the building's main hall, Ai Weiwei has rolled out a 35-meter-long carpet with the same colors and pattern as the floor beneath it. The artist has set up around 100 giant roots and tree parts. What was under the surface has become visible and that which was always there has been made noticeable.

"We all need to give our opinion about it or have to make some kind of judgement; otherwise we are part of it," Ai Weiwei said of the Chinese regime.

"That makes me an artist who cannot avoid giving out opinions," he added. "If I don't say anything, I'm part of it - it's that simple. I'm forced to be quite active or politically unaware."

Ai Weiwei is still recovering from injuries sustained when the Chinese security forces beat him up earlier this year. This is why he will not be attending this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens on Wednesday and where China is the guest of honor.

This hall contains three works of art: "Rooted Upon" (100 tree parts), "Soft Ground" (the carpet with a tile pattern) and "Fairytale" (1,001 pictures of Chinese visitors)
This hall contains three works of art: "Rooted Upon" (100 tree parts), "Soft Ground" (the carpet with a tile pattern) and "Fairytale" (1,001 pictures of Chinese visitors)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The exhibition runs through January 17, 2010.

Author: Silke Ballweg (at)

Editor: Kate Bowen