Until I stepped off the boat at Alcatraz last April, I had no idea who Ai Weiwei is. But I’m glad that I found out.
Weiwei is an artist and a political dissident in his Chinese homeland. He created an exhibit that was on display inside Alcatraz, but was not allowed to leave China to see it for himself. He’s not a physical prisoner the way that Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island, but when your freedom of movement is curtailed you are, in fact, a prisoner.
I probably would have enjoyed Alcatraz well enough if the exhibit had not been on display, but its presence made it mean so much more. It opened up new parts of the island that I otherwise would not have seen, and it raised issues about incarceration and why governments engage in it. Sometimes violent crimes are involved, but other times a criminal’s only real crime is opposing the powers that be.
To make this point the likenesses of dozens–176, to be exact–of political prisoners were rendered in pixilated fashion, as shown above. It was possible, for those who wanted to, to learn more about the identities of these prisoners, why they were being held as prisoners of conscience, and to write to the governments and make a plea for their release. I’d be lying if I said I remembered who I wrote a postcard for–it seemed like a compelling enough story, though–but it felt like something concrete that could be done on behalf of personal and intellectual freedom around the world.
The pixilation effect was created by using colored Legos against a white background. I realized from the exhibit that Legos have an artistic function that I had not considered before. And the plastic composition of the blocks gave the art a sturdiness that other mediums could not match.
When Weiwei attempted to place a bulk order for Legos in advance of his upcoming exhibit in Australia, the request was denied by he company who make the blocks. They claimed that their products could not be used for making a political statement, and filling the bulk order would signify their endorsement of Weiwei’s message.
The purpose of a business is to sell their product to whoever wants to have it. And bulk orders are the best thing, because it means more sales. Or at least it does unless the block-sellers are themselves trying to send a political message of not wanting to offend the Chinese government. It’s an act of expediency on their part, perhaps, but it will also bring lots of condemnation, as it should.
Art is vital for furthering the human condition on earth. It calls on people to think, to question, and reevaluate the things they either actively do themselves, or passively allow to be done in their names. I’m certainly willing to say that incarceration is abused in this country, given that more people are behind bars in this country than any other nation on earth (including China, which has several times the population that the U.S. has). If 30 years of the War On Drugs has proven anything, it’s that legalizing and regulating marijuana might have been part of the solution all along.
Over the next couple of days, I plan to go through my house and see what we have in the way of Legos. My 12 and 16 year-olds aren’t going to play with them any more, and sending what I can find to Ai Weiwei for his purposes will be a tangible effort to aid the cause of artistic expression, and prevent the type of corporate grandstanding that the Lego people are engaging in. And it may also save me the trouble of donating them to a thrift shop someday. It seems like a winning proposition, all the way around.