Mak­ing a state­ment

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Arts -

CHI­NESE artist Ai Wei­wei is blunt. When he wanted to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment about crack­downs on dis­sent, he brought por­traits of 176 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers to one of Amer­ica’s most in­fa­mous high-se­cu­rity fed­eral prisons.

Trace, first shown at Al­ca­traz prison off the San Fran­cisco Bay in 2014, opened last month in Wash­ing­ton for a six-month run at the Hir­sh­horn mu­seum. More than 1.2 mil­lion Lego bricks were as­sem­bled by hand to form the in­di­vid­ual por­traits, ar­ranged on the floor in Ai’s lat­est sub­ver­sion of ready­made ma­te­ri­als.

Sev­eral of the “pris­on­ers of con­science” cho­sen by Ai – him­self held un­der house ar­rest with­out charge for three months in 2011 and banned from trav­el­ing out­side China un­til 2015 – are likely to trig­ger de­bate in the United States.

Ed­ward Snow­den and Chelsea Man­ning, be­hind some of the big­gest leaks of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments in US his­tory, share the first of six zones of 30 por­traits with his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Nel­son Man­dela and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as Shaker Aamer, a Saudi ci­ti­zen and Bri­tish res­i­dent held at Guan­tanamo Bay with­out trial or charge for more than 13 years un­til 2015.

Among the pub­lic fig­ures fea­tured in Trace is No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Aung San Suu Kyi, long praised for her pro-democ­racy work in Myan­mar but, since lead­ing the gov­ern­ment, ac­cused of com­pla­cency to­ward the coun­try’s still pow­er­ful mil­i­tary and si­lence on the re­pres­sion of the Mus­lim Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity.

Other por­traits fea­ture dis­si­dents from China, else­where in Asia and the Mid­dle East who are less fa­mil­iar to the Western pub­lic, such as Egyp­tian blog­ger Alaa Ab­del Fat­tah, Lao­tian pro-democ­racy ad­vo­cate Thong­paseuth Keuak­oun and Ti­betan Bud­dhist monk Jigme Gy­atso.

“To­day, you can see his art, his life, his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism as one and the same over­ar­ch­ing con­cep­tual project,” says Melissa Chiu, Hir­sh­horn di­rec­tor.

While Ai pro­fesses a con­nec­tion to the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers due to his own ac­tivism that helped make him an in­ter­na­tional brand – and the price China has made him pay for it – the in­jus­tices the ac­tivists have faced are barely brushed upon in the brief bi­o­graph­i­cal texts that ac­com­pany the por­traits.

A spe­cially com­mis­sioned graphic wall­pa­per that wraps around a 210m gallery space in the cir­cu­lar mu­seum ap­pears highly dec­o­ra­tive at first.

Come closer, and sur­veil­lance cam­eras, hand­cuffs and Twit­ter birds emerge, a nod to Ai’s very ac­tive use of so­cial me­dia that has an­gered Bei­jing.

And then there are grin­ning al­paca-like crea­tures adopted by Chi­nese In­ter­net users as a mas­cot for free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

“The free­doms that are en­tailed in so­cial me­dia and even tech­nol­ogy are maybe some­thing that we need to pay more at­ten­tion to,” Chiu told AFP.

“There’s no space that’s en­tirely free.”

— Reuters

A por­trait of Rus­sian po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Sergei Udaltsov made from Lego bricks is dis­played at the Ai Wei­wei’s Trace ex­hi­bi­tion at the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton, DC, the United States.

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