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Global modernisms in the 21st century

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in 1995 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei photographed himself as he picked up a 2000 year old urn and let it smash to the ground if we're appalled when cultural heritage is destroyed in the name of God and state how can we possibly defend eyes action how can we buy a ticket to see photos of it in a museum how can those photos sell for over a million dollars how can this man be one of the most renowned artists of our time this is the case for AI weiwei i Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 - writer Gao yang and famed poet I Ching whom Communist leader Mao Zedong initially embraced but soon after denounced during the anti-rightist movement of 1958 the family was exiled to labor camps and remote provinces until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 they then returned to Beijing and I and by that I mean I Weiwei enrolled in Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and co-founded a group of avant-garde artists called the stars in 1981 he decamped to the US and settled in New York where he scraped by hung out with his neighbor renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg and took lots and lots of pictures he also immersed himself in art studying Marcel Duchamp and considering the idea of the ready-made as a way to make art when he returned to China in 1993 he met with a country undergoing tremendous change many were still reeling from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and dung Xiao Qing's focus on economic development had tripped off the massive transformation of China's cities eyes earned dropping occurred not long after his return but his irreverence had surfaced before that he turned a critical eye toward all edifices of power at home as well as abroad well-versed in antiques he knew the value of historic objects and the symbolic power of manipulating them Chinese antiquities became eyes raw material for a new kind of ready-made dynamically synthesizing the clash between reverence for the past and the irrepressible drive toward the future for modernization is a mixed bag with change there is loss history is a race how can we condemn an artist for destroying cultural heritage when his government has raised neighborhoods and entire cities to build new roads building giant dams and Olympic stadiums eyes work allows us to reckon with the destruction that construction requires but to be clear he is more of a creator than just he is repurposed wood from demolished temples and transformed it into intricate and dramatic installation he takes a basic unit say an antique stool and multiplies it compounds it to see where it takes us history that would otherwise be relegated to dusty shops or landfills is made strikingly unforgettably visible and he has found new uses for old techniques hiring craftspeople adept in ancient joinery tradition he's enlisted the most skilled porcelain makers in the world to demonstrate their mastery commissioning exquisitely made copies and objects like watermelons crabs and millions and millions of sunflower seeds he's embraced the hand made within an economy whose incredible growth has been fueled by automation and mass production he has synthesized traditionally Chinese materials to think about the part in relationship to the whole the self in relationship to the collective if a nation cannot face its past he has said it has no future and I is equally concerned with the present in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake struck he visited the region in the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to gather the names of the dead addressing attempts by authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of schoolchildren who died because of poorly built school he a must tons of twisted rebar from the wreckage painstakingly straightened it and assembled it in despair aleejack memorial he arranged 9,000 backpacks on the facade of the house der kunst in Munich to represent the young lives lost spelling out a quote from a victim's mother she lived happily for seven years in this world I had been a ceaseless unflagging voice for the voiceless in 2009 he was beaten and detained in his hotel room in Chengdu when attempting to testify in the trial of human rights activist Hans RN he visits with refugees fleeing the war in Syria organized a London walk of compassion in their honour covered his sculptures with thermal blankets and wraps the columns of Berlin's concert hall with salvaged refugee life s an early adherent of social media he is an adamant supporter of free speech he reports on his life in minut detail he did so up until his 2011 arrest in confinement for 81 days on unfounded tax evasion charges as well as after authorities have demolished his shanghai studio threatened to demolish his beijing studio and forced him to pay a tax evasion sign of 15 million UN he has been continually surveilled and followed prevented from leaving his country and through it all his refused censorship within China as well as abroad not everything he does is genius but he remains committed to reaching an ever wider public his work does not sit firmly in the realm of art but radiates out he's often called an iconoclast and an urn crusher would certainly seem to adhere to the definition but there's another way to see AI weiwei as someone who desperately wants the cherished beliefs and institutions of china's past to be remembered and resuscitated and in that sense as radicals go he's brilliantly conservative his work is deeply rooted in history and tradition it is steeped in remembering valuing preserving he stands defiantly opposed to a culture that wants to move on with little regard for the past he is resistance to forgetting to silence his work asks us to consider what we value why we value it and what we are accountable for destroying preserving or transforming he asks fundamental questions about our human rights and responsibilities Liberty he says is about our rights to question everything out of a source of constant irritation the oyster develops a pearl I is that constant source of irritation and we are lucky not only to bear witness to it but to be called to action by it