The Wei Wei exhibition ‘Libero’ (Freedom) is in Florence now until the 22 Jan 2017 and I was keen to go early having seen his exhibition in Melbourne in Jan 2016. There has been quite a lot of comments and some hefty criticisms as the orange rubber dinghies used by refugees, were hung around the majestic Palazzo Strozzi housing the exhibition.
The ‘Huffington Post’ was huffing heaps in an article by Luca Rossi published 5 days before the opening, to give you an idea with an excerpt since the article was in Italian:
‘Ai Weiwei has not done anything politically significant, if not taken advantage of the misfortunes and injustices of the world to increase his fame and the price of his works. Showing the rafts on the facade of the Palazzo Strozzi shows us the refugee problem? As if I did not know that there is a problem, as if the problem did not pass every day on the news. What can an artist do? A lot, but Ai Weiwei does nothing.
If he was born in Viterbo, and was not “exotic” to the Western world he would not have had the exposure of which he and his gallery owners can enjoy; it is a new form of colonialism, aimed at creating expensive trinkets for the rich to show in some apartment in New York and London. And here are the remains of an earthquake in China in an exhibition in London, and here are the rafts and life jackets hanging of refugees in the city of Berlin and soon (now) in Florence. I would like to see one of those rafts in a living room of Park Avenue.’
I don’t have the same impression, and believe artworks exist to provoke thought and reflection and as a result, can mean a range of things to different people, and Ai Wei Wei’s exhibits are definitely thought provoking. Many Florentines have never heard of him before so it is a great opportunity for them to discover his works as well as encourage others and tourists from all Italy to visit the exhibition.
The impact of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which killed roughly 70,000 people is still present with his ‘Snake Bag’ exhibit of 360 kids backpacks sewn together alongside coffins, in memory of over 5,000 children crushed beneath school buildings. In the film ‘Never Sorry’ the list of children’s names, gathered by Wei Wei’s volunteers is papered on the wall of his studio and on the anniversary of this tragic event the public are invited to read a name out loud, continuing the condemnation of the inadequate building materials and structure.
While his career took off after his bird nest stadium for the Chinese Olympics in 2004, Wei Wei has since regretted the building and snubbed the Olympics as being purely party propaganda. Fellow Chinese artists consider him different from those who normally graduate from the Art Academy as he persists with a ‘slap in the face’ style that continues to irritate the Chinese government. His love of his own culture yet his need to break from tradition and conceive images and projects of social significance have set him apart.
His use of Lego continues in his series on political dissidents, curiously I think taken from Renaissance Italy.
The delicate bamboo and silk figures from Chinese culture – the Birdman, Flying Fish and the Great Wind inspired by kites from his childhood adorn another room.
The film shows a very personal side – as a great foodie (which shows!), his love of cats, (keeping around 40 cats and dogs at his studio), his playful side as a father, his organisation of craftsmen, artists and volunteers involved in his projects, and his constant filming. All gave me a clearer picture of where this artist is coming from.
His brand of liberal thinking and use of social media will continue to raise criticisms both inside and out of China and while Wei Wei may be more insecure than what he appears he sure knows what he wants to say with his Art.