Making a statement
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.”
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.