Photo courtesy of Lavin Lahiji
Upon returning for a second semester abroad in Florence, Italy, the last thing I expected to do was see an art exhibit designed by a Chinese man. In Palazzo Strozzi, an exhibit of mass proportions and popularity was presented; the world-renowned artist/activist is Ai Weiwei from Beijing. Ai’s exhibit, overflowed with anti-establishment, sorrow and a resounding will to fight. The feelings of many U.S. citizens run parallel to Ai’s. While protest seems to be the most popular way to express oneself, Ai Weiwei chooses to protest through art.
The American government has drastically changed. This could be the most political discourse many of us have witnessed or participated. People see corruption, are angry and are turning to protest, peaceful or otherwise. Even abroad, this event has caused countries to have their own protests in reaction to the recent transfer of power.
When I first entered the exhibit, the first piece was an archway made of hundreds of bikes, and I felt as though I was about to enter a racetrack. However, the room I entered couldn’t have been more depressing. I saw oddly shaped coffins on the floor and a TV playing footage from the Sichuan earthquake on the wall. A series of schools had collapsed, killing thousands of children, the result of government agencies cutting corners on construction.
Another room had walls full of pictures of middle fingers. Ai Weiwei visited several sites, such as the Louvre, the Colosseum and the New York Skyline, and took pictures with his middle finger in the frame. This was his way of protesting a world that is not of the people, nor for the people. “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship in this world,” tweeted Ai.
The final room held a beautiful sculpture of a wall. Another TV in the room explained that after Ai Weiwei’s very public criticism of the Chinese government, he was held in jail for several months. At a certain point they let him go, only after he agreed to do all of his artwork in a studio built by the government. Ai worked there for a while, but the government eventually blew it up. Ai took the rubble of his studio and created a beautiful wall which exudes peace and unwavering strength. It is an image of rebirth, and rising above an evil that Ai knew all too well.
Art exhibits are an incredible way to express feelings of anger and injustice that grip our nation. While it may seem a quieter way to protest than a march, art can change people’s perspectives. I am a stronger advocate even to myself because of this exhibit. Ai does not except anything less than justice, and neither should I. I have had a fire lit inside me to fight for my country from all the way in Europe, by a Chinese man. That’s the power of art.
The kind of change we want will not be realized without peaceful expression, listening and understanding. In Ai Weiwei’s own words, “For me, it is OK as long as I can breathe, as long as my heart is pumping, as long as I can express myself.”
Although I am abroad, the cry of my country is heard no weaker. When I return, I will join the millions in protest or in art, and work tirelessly to achieve a vision of our country that is truly rooted in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
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