Artists Raise Their Voices for Justice

Thu, 27/06/2013 - 08:52 -- damien

The issue about art is that many people fail to recognise its potential; in seeing a piece at an exhibition they may stop and think ‘ahh this looks nice’, but little do they realise that this piece is in fact a direct response to the tyranny raging in Libya, or a vessel giving the victims of assault a voice. In assuming that the absolute function of an artwork is to look good, the viewer has ultimately voided the true purpose of the work—to alter public perception in aid of bettering the society we live in. Fortunately, however, certain artists have broken out of this ‘décor only’ zone and have succeeded in enlightening the wider public to the messages behind their works. Renowned Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and Indigenous artist, Tony Albert, are two such individuals who have repudiated that naive perception, raising their voices in a call for justice through fostering awareness of the prejudice present in today’s world and influencing public perceptions to better society. 

Artists are able to influence a large variety of people across the globe through their work. The influence of art is heightened by its visual nature and the fact that it can appeal to a side of human nature that persuasive speech cannot reach. How this influence is utilised varies from artist to artist, however it is those who use their power to aid others, even putting themselves at risk in the process, as in the case of Ai Weiwei, who are true heroes of art in my eyes. 

An active controversial artist from a young age, Ai Weiwei uses his work to ‘critically address artistic traditions and conventions’, goading us to question the truth behind the overwhelming propaganda present in China.1 Ai Weiwei’s success can be attributed to his ability to harness the immense power of the media. Take, for instance, the Sichuan scandal in 2008; the terrible earthquake in which thousands of innocent school children were killed because of poor building standards resulting from the government, allegedly, wanting to save money on building materials. The government apparently attempted to hide its role in the carnage, even threatening reprisals to any who dared speak out.2 As Ai profoundly stated ‘…you realise individual life, media and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything’.3 To ensure his prediction failed to come true, Ai Weiwei proceeded to create the monumental Remembering (2009), a massive installation one hundred metres long and ten metres high consisting of nine thousand children’s backpacks spelling out the words of a grieving mother: ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’. The resulting media tidal wave crashed the Party’s propaganda and exposed it to the world. The lives of the students are remembered. 

Ai Weiwei’s critical approach was further expressed in his work Feet (2003). This consisted of a wooden table displaying the stone feet of looted Buddhist statuary dating from the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577 CE). The artwork attests to the destruction committed during periods of dynastic change in China, as new regimes attempted to obliterate the cultural and aesthetic achievements of former powers.4 Although the work is a specific protest against the careless destruction of Chinese cultural material,5 it could be seen to simultaneously comment on the Communist Party’s propaganda used to cover up past wrongs. As Ai stated, ‘without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one’.6 Thus, the discarded remains of the past are given a new purpose, becoming a symbol for the truth. Ai could be seen to be sending a message; no matter how hard they try to destroy the records of their past, the roots, or ‘feet’, of the truth will remain, lying forlorn until someone such as himself reveals them for the world to see. That the Party recognised the threat Ai’s influence posed became obvious through his arrest for ‘economic crimes’. Although Ai has been released, Nicholas Bequelin of the Human Rights Watch suggested that his arrest, calculated to send the message that no one was immune, ‘must have had the approval of someone in the top leadership’.7 Due to its timeless message, Feet retains its significance today, even as the situation in China mellows. Long into the future, this work will still serve as a warning against political corruption and the abuse of propaganda; as long as there are dishonest governments, Feet will retain its relevance to contemporary society.

Much as Ai Weiwei draws upon political issues relevant to his own nationality as inspiration, Tony Albert’s works stem from his Indigenous heritage. Although not as prominently outspoken as Ai, Albert successfully uses his art to reframe modern Indigenous Australian history through its representation in ‘kitsch’ material culture.8 Sorry (2008), perhaps his most famous work, is a direct response to the formal apology issued by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indigenous Australians on 13 February, 2008. ‘On this day, Australia witnessed one of its most overtly optimistic displays of unity and national pride…’.9 Consisting of the word ‘sorry’ made up of kitsch ‘aboriginalia’ Albert has collected over the years, Sorry captures the intense emotions stemming from this iconic event. Each and every face represents ‘a false identity, manufactured black faces made to fit a white society’.10 Just as with Ai’s Feet, Albert has afforded the discarded ‘aboriginalia’ a new life, as both a memorial to the anguish caused by the stolen generation and a reminder of the hope conceived by the apology—a practice of liberation. The bold, pronounced nature of the work also presents a warning: whilst the apology was an important symbolic gesture, real change must be made in society before Albert will fully accept the Prime Minister’s words to be more than just words.11 ‘Why have we remained strong or hopeful for so long? It is because something is going to change; it’s going to get better’ (Albert, 2011).12

The powerful nature of Sorry’s message is reinforced by the overwhelming wave of guilt one experiences when viewing it. Whether or not we, or our relatives, participated in the atrocities of the stolen generation, we cannot help but feel awful that something like this happened in our own country; that our own country could be responsible for something so terrible. It is through this confronting element that Sorry will remain relevant to our society; the work will serve as a constant reminder of the past, and as a warning for the future. 

Feet and Sorry may address completely different societal issues, however the intent behind each work remains very similar. Both Ai and Albert have successfully used their works to influence public perceptions on political issues relevant to their cultural contexts. The employment of forgotten or discarded materials in both works proves to be an excellent method of linking past wrongdoings to present day issues. By exposing us to relics of the past, the artists have forced us to question the morals of the present. 

Although the artworks in question have disappeared into storage, the powerful resonances of these works are still able to influence us today. Both artists have the temerity to stand up and raise their voices about issues most of us acknowledge but do nothing about, with a hope that society is given the motivation to overcome injustice. The power of an artist’s voice is therefore not determined by popularity, rather it is in the ability of their work to continue to sculpt public perception, retaining its relevance in our ever-changing world.

notes: 

1. 21st Century Blog, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011. http://qag.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/past/2010/21st_Century/artists/ai_weiwei
2. Art Tattler International, 2011. http://arttattler.com/archiveaiweiwei.html
3. Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009, quoted in Ai Weiwei So Sorry, Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London, New York, 2009, pp.14 and Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei
4. http://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/upload/rgnim54437/AWW_EdKit_Final.pdf
5. Ibid.
6. Smith, Roberta, ‘12 Heads Do the Talking for a Silenced Artist’, The New York Times, 4 May 2011.
7. Clem, Will & Choi Chi-yuk, ‘Beijing’s silence an ominous signal’, South China Morning Post, 6 April 2011. http://topics.scmp.com/news/china-news-watch/article/Beijings-silence-an...
8. QAG http://21cblog.com/tony-albert-sorry-2008/
9. QAG http://qag.qld.gov.au/collection/indigenous_australian_art/tony_albert
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. GOMA 21st Century onsite preparation; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6afMy0rlqq8
Image page 25. Tony Albert, Sorry, 2008. Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters. 99 objects: 200 x 510 x 10cm (installed). The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Purchased 2008 with funds from James C Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. © The artist.