Ai WeiWei: a True Social Media Artist
On 15 December 2008, artist Ai WeiWei supported an investigation into student casualties in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Called the “citizen’s investigation”, it aimed to compile a list of students killed in the earthquake.
By April 14, 2009, the list had accumulated 5,385 names. WeiWei published the collected names along with several articles documenting the investigation on his blog which was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009. He also posted his list of names of schoolchildren who died on the wall of his office at FAKE Design in Beijing.
After a run-in (he was beaten) with the police in Chengdu, WeiWei suffered headaches and claimed he had difficulty concentrating on his work. He was beaten for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake. On September 14, 2009, WeiWei was diagnosed to be suffering internal bleeding in a hospital in Munich, Germany, and the doctor arranged for emergency brain surgery. The cerebral hemorrhage is believed to be linked to the police attack.
According to the Financial Times, in an attempt to force WeiWei to leave the country, two accounts used by him had been hacked in a sophisticated attack on Google in China dubbed Operation Aurora, their contents read and copied; his bank accounts were investigated by state security agents who claimed he was under investigation for “unspecified suspected crimes”.
All of the events mentioned above were taken by WeiWei and turned into art. The MRIs of his brain after being beaten, the names of the children, rebar from the shoddy construction, and backpacks from the children were all made into pieces for his exhibit, “According to What?”
His art pieces “Straight” and “Forge” are large installments made of the rebar recovered from the sites of the destroyed schools. They are part of a big healing process for those of the Sichuan Province that lost relatives, friends, and neighbors. So many people are a part of the process, pounding the rebar straight or molding it to look like the mangled rebar found in the earthquake wreckage. I went to the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. and saw WeiWei’s exhibit. I had some knowledge of it before I went, but when I finally saw—and heard—it I was blown away. All the emotion, work, and guts that were put into made me tear up a bit. “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” was the piece that really got me. A huge wall is covered in the names of the students killed in the earthquake and the names can be heard coming from speakers surrounding the wall. It’s heartbreaking.
Social media is a huge part of life as we now know it. Ai WeiWei is arguably the leading artist and activist using social media. The definition of “social media are social software which mediate human communication.” The way WeiWei uses social media is the epitome of the definition. He involves so many people in his art and activism that it truly is social media.