On September 28th, NYU Florence students congregated in front of the Odeon Cinema, abuzz in the air, each of us awaiting the reveal of the Ai Weiwei.Libero exhibit. Before our exclusive tours, we sat down with NYU Art and Public Policy professors Pato Hebert and Hentyle Yapp and art curator Arturo Galansino to discuss the larger implications of Ai weiwei’s work as an art activist. Hentyle Yapp, introduced by Ellyn Toscano–founder of La Pietra Dialogues, spoke succinctly on Ai Weiwei’s previous art works in relation to Chinese history and their respective political motivations. A premier example explained by Hentyle Yapp is Ai Weiwei’s use of repetition.
Hentyle elaborated on Ai Weiwei’s use of repetition as a metaphor with which to address racial homogeneity and discrimination. Repeating the use of an object multiple times is symbolic of the many people that are born within a single ethnic group. For Ai Weiwei, whose Chinese heritage has heavily impacted his artistic expression, he addresses the Asian stereotype that all Asian people look alike. Ai Weiwei also uses repetition as a way to explore the tensions between the individual within the collective. Both of these major themes, racialization and identity, were explored in Ai Weiwei’s large art piece comprised of a consortium of bicycles. Titled “Forever”, the multitude of bikes are assorted so precisely that from certain angles a row of bikes fools the eye into seeing a single bicycle. As Hentyle noted this could be another way in Ai Weiwei uses a shift in perspective to incite conversation; from one angle they all seem the same and yet from another angle their multiplicity can overwhelm you. A parallel can be drawn to humanity, where certain ethnic groups are perceived the same under one stereotype but once we shift our perspective, and perhaps look deeper, we see that there exists an overwhelming plurality.
Ai Weiwei also uses his piece “Forever” to confront the frictions between our singular identity and the identity of the whole. Ai Weiwei coins himself as a child of the Cultural Revolution in China, it was a time of forced cultural unification or “purification” enacted by Mao Zedong’s Communist regime. These ideas of cultural unity still permeate the current Chinese sentiment but Ai Weiwei, whose family was exiled during the Cultural Revolution, rejects censorship and control for the sake of unity. Conversely, what Ai Weiwei presents to us, similarly to the sunflower seed exhibit Ai Weiwei held at the Tate Modern museum of International modern and contemporary art, is that each piece of the larger piece is vital to the overall collective. A single piece is imperative to the beauty of the collective but also has the liberty to be separate from the other objects. Each individual within a community is part of its general identity but within this each individual has their own identity, unique and not to be tamed for the sake of collective unanimity. Ordinary things like bicycles were brought together to make amazing work of art, and this internalizes the tension between the individual and the collective, but the simplicity of each bicycle also forces us to remember that each of us as humans, however ordinary, can be part of something larger and more compelling just the way we are.