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Ai Weiwei – artist for justice

As a Sister of Providence, conscious of the Congregation’s historic involvement with China, I have long been fascinated by Asian art. This fascination deepened recently when I met Ai Weiwei, a modern conceptual artist and social activist, through his artwork and documentaries now on exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Sister Mary Catherine Keene accompanied me on this journey. If the artist’s name sounds familiar, it may be because Weiwei was the artistic consultant for the “bird’s nest,” the unique stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This work of art created from hundreds, if not thousands, of steel bars recovered from the demolished schools poorly built in Sichuan. More than 5000 children perished in those schools during the 2008 earthquake there.

This work of art created from hundreds, if not thousands, of steel bars recovered from the demolished schools poorly built in Sichuan. More than 5000 children perished in those schools during the 2008 earthquake there.

More recently, however, Weiwei has gained international attention for his tireless efforts to use traditional art forms and contemporary media including Twitter and cell phone photography to awaken consciences to human rights and social justice issues that affect the human family in both the East and the West.

Although his art is free to travel to U.S. and European museums, Weiwei himself remains trapped under surveillance in China. In the final room of the exhibit, however, I did encounter the artist himself as he spoke to me from a documentary describing a beating that he received, emergency brain surgery that he required, his efforts to bring his attackers to justice, and his commitment to memorialize and achieve justice for the 5000+ children who perished in poorly built schools that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

In an adjacent room, I pondered the sculpture called “Wenchaun Steel Rebar,” that consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of steel bars recovered from the demolished schools. A short film shows Weiwei and others painstakingly straightening the mangled bars and arranging them to create this testament to how important it is for a society to remember tragedies and victims and to keep values aligned to prevent future devastation. On the entire far wall of the room from floor to ceiling is a listing of the children who died and their birth dates. In the background, voices reverently read the names filling the space with a sense of lives lost too young. The list was created by the Citizens’ Investigation Project supported by Weiwei which continues to investigate the school collapses.

Sister Mary Catherine Keene pictured with Ai Weiwei's bicycle sculpture, "Forever," on display in Indianapolis.

Sister Mary Catherine Keene pictured with Ai Weiwei’s bicycle sculpture, “Forever,” on display in Indianapolis.

On a lighter note, many playful moments in the exhibit caused me to pause and get a fresh perspective on very ordinary items like chairs, a priceless urn and bicycles. For example, “Grapes,” a whimsical semicircular arrangement of stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), caused me to marvel at the enduring craftsmanship evident in them. In contrast, I was startled by “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a trio of larger than life photos showing Weiwei dropping a 2000 year-old priceless urn to illustrate how important an iconoclast can be in freeing a society to find new ideas and values.

The bicycle sculpture, “Forever,” celebrates the leading bicycle manufacturer in China and points to how transitory objects can be. The Chinese people now are abandoning their bikes as modernization and western automobiles take hold throughout the nation.

My encounter with Ai Weiwei this weekend reminded me once again of the importance of artists in enlivening a society and being witnesses for justice. I will be praying for him and for all those who use their talents and skills to wake us up to new ways of seeing and being attuned to the call to work for justice.

If I have whetted your curiosity to know more about Ai Weiwei, the IMA exhibit will be available until July 21. Even if you can’t get to Indy to visit the exhibit, you can meet Ai Weiwie and see his work in a variety of segments on YouTube, including a fascinating interview with Christiane Arampour. By all means, let him wake you up!

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Sister Cathy Campbell

Sister Cathy Campbell

Sister Cathy Campbell, SP, is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Spirituality from Catholic Theological Union/Chicago. Sister Cathy also ministers as a retreat facilitator for the Providence Spirituality and Conference Center with special interests in scripture and the mystics.

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  1. Avatar Christina Blust on July 3, 2013 at 9:35 am

    I got to see this exhibit in Indy last month and I too thought it was fascinating. He certainly has a unique sort of creative courage.

  2. Avatar Jenny Nowalk, PA on July 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

    So happy to read the perspective of a Sister of Providence! My husband Robert, Coordinator of Visual Arts at the Culver Academies, tells he Weiwei is the most important current artist of our day. I did not get to go on the trip to see the exhibit. But your article reminds me of the blessings of living with my sweet Robert! and reminds me to listen again when he talks excitedly about Weiwei!

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