For years the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, had been a thorn in the back side of the Beijing autocracy, publicly undermining their every attempt of portraying a unified and content populace. However, on the 6th of August 2018, it seemed the government scored a devastating win. Unannounced and with no prior warning, Chinese authorities arrived at his studio of over 10 years, armed with heavy machinery and tore the building down. “Farewell,” Ai wrote on Instagram. “Today, they started to demolish my studio ‘Zuo You’ in Beijing with no precaution. Which I have as my main studio since 2006.”
Although the rental contract of the space had expired last autumn, the studio manager claimed the staff hadn’t had enough time to move out of the space given Ai’s vast collection of materials and works. The artist said that a number of his works had been irreparably damaged due to the surprise demolition.
Ai is known for a variety of art installations, including the ambitious ‘Sunflower Seeds’ exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. However, his most important work is his social activism against an oppressive regime. It is controversially embodied by his ‘Study of Perspective series (1995 to 2003), a collection of photographs he took whilst travelling, offering his middle finger to some of the world’s most ‘important’ institutions. He describes it as his personal form of rebellion against any government authority who blatantly or covertly disregard the freedoms of its citizens.
With the rental in Beijing having skyrocketed and the artist firmly out of favour with his native government, it is unclear where and what Ai’s next chapter will be. What we do know is that he is persistent and he will not be silenced, as with many other artists of this generation. We take a look at some of the most important works of protest art of the past decade that embody Ai’s spirit of unforgiving freedom of expression. For what is art if not liberty?
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One of the infamous street artist’s iconic stencilled graffitis, Flower Thrower depicts a man lobbing a bouquet instead of a Molotov cocktail. Spray-painted on a wall on the side of a garage in Jerusalem on the main road to Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Banksy’s juxtaposed message of peace could not be more appropriately located. However, the impact is universal and is still felt today in the endless violence that socio-political struggles against governments around the world seem to culminate in.
Pavlensky is known as an extreme artist who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths in his performance pieces. Known as the ‘Living Pain’ artist, Pavlensky is one of the most outspoken critics of the Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule over the Russian Federation. He has done everything from wrapping himself naked in barb wire as a commentary on a series of laws suppressing civic activism to nailing his scrotum on the Red Square referring to the apathy and political indifference modern Russian society. In 2012, he sewed his lips together as a symbol of the state’s silencing of dissidents, protesting the heavily publicised incarceration of feminist punk band Pussy Riot.
This universal symbol has long been associated with defiance in the face of oppression. Depicted in numerous forms and for countless causes, the clenched fist has been used by artists during the Mexican Revolution, by American students during the Vietnam war, by French students during the Paris Rebellion, by the Black Panther Party and more recently, in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a gesture of strength in solidarity and a call to arms against those who seek to divide. Timeless in its raison d’être, displays of this gesture either in artworks or by raising our own fists will surely live on from one generation to the next.
In 2015 Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minick Rosing in 2015 imported to France 12 icebergs from southern Greenland, which he arranged like the 12 digits on a clock. He installed them during the Paris Climate Conference in Paris’s Place du Pantheon, so onlookers could watch them melt. Perfectly timed, the 12 blocks took 12 days to disintegrate—the length of the conference. The ten-ton pieces of ice traveled via shipping container to Denmark and then ten hours by truck to reach the French capital. The complex planning and logistics ultimately ended up being the simplest of protests. Yet it delivered an incredibly powerful message that time was of the essence, in a world where the climate is drastically changing.
The rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is meant to be a resting spot for visitors, who after perusing the vast exhibitions halls seek to contemplate and relax. Usually adorned with simple sculptures, in the summer of 2013, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, desecrated the place of respite into the aftermath of a war zone. Painting intricate patterns, all in blood red, Qureshi wanted visitors in the area to experience the eerie scene one witnesses after a bomb has exploded. He explained that the grand metaphor in the piece is that violence can obscure but not extinguish life.
Fearless Girl is is the perfect example of countering art with art. Installed opposite Wall Street’s famous Charging Bull, this bronze sculpture was an unapologetic statement made by the artist against the lack of gender diversity and the inequalities women face in the workplace. The plaque below the statue stated: “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” The bull had been a longstanding feature in the largest financial district of the United States. For years, it embodied aggressive financial optimism and prosperity in an overtly masculine form. However, once Fearless Girl was erected, the entire portrait of what the bull sculpture had discerned changed completely. Especially in the face of the current economic climate, with much of the blame placed upon the hyper-masculine greed of Wall Street bankers, the bull was emasculated and made to look like an unwarranted aggressor in the face of a young girl, standing confident and iron-willed.