Good art makes you think; great art inspires action. One of the best concerts I’ve ever attended was Daniel Martin Moore, Ben Sollee, and Yim Yames performing at the Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia on their Appalachian Voices Tour. I’ve seen Ben Sollee in concert many times over the years; he’s a fabulous performer. But what set this particular show apart from others was that it was about something deeper, more important than merely singing or playing well. It was geared towards inspiring the audience towards action — more specifically, action against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The album Dear Companion, a collaboration effort by Moore and Sollee and produced by Jim James, was created solely to raise awareness about mountaintop removal. Midway through the concert, they introduced a gentleman from rural Kentucky who spoke about how MTR was ruining his community. He was not particularly well-spoken, and certainly not glamorous, but he was sincere, honest, and candid. It was refreshing to see these well-known, talented musicians use their platform to give voice to someone who would otherwise not have the chance to speak to thousands of people across the country about an oppressive practice that was impacting him, his family, and his neighbors. Before the show, I knew very little about these destructive practice occurring in Appalachia. While I honestly have not done much to combat this issue, I left that show feeling enlightened, entertained, and educated.
Art, at its best, is beautiful, thought-provoking, and dispels ignorance. It gives voice to the voiceless and educates viewers, inviting them to participate. One contemporary artist who is producing work that does just that is Ai Weiwei.
Several months ago I watched the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Netflix, b!). The documentary is well made, but it’s the subject matter — Ai himself — that makes it so compelling. Ai, of 2008 Olympic Games “Bird’s Nest” Stadium fame, uses art as a means of protest. The son of a famous Chinese poet who spent time in labor camps for his outspoken political views, Ai studied in Brooklyn but returned to China in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, Ai has become an outspoken dissident of the Chinese government. Art is his preferred form of protest. When government officials neglected to release the names and total numbers of children who died needlessly due to poorly constructed government-built schools collapsing from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai spent nearly two years collecting identities of the dead students. He worked with other artists to mobilize hundreds of Chinese citizens to help gather the names of nearly 6,000 children who passed away. Ai created a display outside the House of Art in Munich, Germany entitled ‘Remember’ to honor those killed in the earthquake. The installation, shown in the gallery above, is a public outcry seeking to hold the government accountable for their criminal neglect.
Ai’s work has not gone unpunished. Never Sorry tells about how the police brutally beat Ai to the point of hospitalization (and brain hemorrhaging), put him under constant surveillance, bulldozed his studio, and detained him for 81 days in the spring of 2011 without notifying anyone — even Ai’s wife — of his whereabouts.
But Ai also uses humor in his work; take, for example, “Study of Perspective,” or “Grass Mud Horse,” or, more recently, “WeiweiCam” — a 24-hour surveillance camera Ai installed in his own home mocking and taunting the government for their own extensive surveillance of him. According to The Guardian, the fifteen government-installed cameras outside Ai’s home make it “the most-watched area of Beijing.” Ai’s WeiweiCam invited others to participate in the surveillance process alongside the government; unfortunately, the site was shut down by the government a few days later.
Ai continues to advocate for human rights in China and is expanding his audience with every exhibition, tweet, blog post, video, photograph, and installation he produces. I strongly recommend you check it out for yourself.