Libero was the final event for NYU Florence’s GO Italy! Orientation series. Students were provided a brief introduction into Italian culture and life in Florence at the Cinema Odeon during their first week here. One aspect of Italian culture that was emphasized was the question “Where are you from?” Most people would answer the country they were born in, or their ethnicity, but Ellyn Toscano— who introduced the speakers— pointed out that this question has a different significance to Italians. “Where are you from?” asks you what your city or region is, and almost immediately people can make guesses about who you are; they can create assumptions about what your mannerisms, characteristics, and beliefs are. Going into the Libero exhibit I thought about this question of “Where are you from?” How does Ai Weiwei think about place in relation to identity? I wondered why Libero was necessary for all students to view as a follow-up for our global orientation session. What was the relation of identity to Libero?
Ai Weiwei is an artist of multiple talents. He has designed architecture, such as Caochangdi and the National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He is also involved with installation art (Sunflowers at the Tate Modern, 2010; Fairytale, 2007), is a documentarian, and is very active on social media. Throughout his works, you can notice themes of the mass and plurality through the use of repetition. With his Sunflowers piece, for example, Ai Weiwei had thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds hand painted and showcased them in London’s Tate Modern gallery. This work referenced China’s health crisis of the early 2000s and its image as the “Sick Man of Asia”. In his documentary, Fairytale, he followed around 1,001 Chinese citizens and recorded their own personal “fairytales” for 28 days. Pieces that display the use of plurality within the Libero exhibit included the Finger wallpaper, Golden Age wallpaper, Iron Grass, and Porcelain Flowers. He also discusses ideas of race and identity through repetition in Reframe. This was a piece in which the windows of Palazzo Strozzi were covered by twenty-two rubber life boat in order to draw attention to the struggles of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East. These pieces are able to create a relation with communities that are placed in sub-human categories due to their skin tone, stereotypes, ethnicity, social and/or economic class.
This exhibit highlighted Ai Weiwei’s form of activism through art and hopefully began a discussion on the importance of free speech and expression. Often, students do not think about the deeper implications and significance of their freedom (or lack thereof). We conducted several interviews with students while they explored the exhibit. In doing this we wanted to encourage a dialogue about identity and self-expression in relation to mobility, freedom, and privilege.
While students were roaming the exhibit, we decided to ask them a series of questions pertaining to the politics of their identity and mobility. The questions we asked are as follows:
- On a scale 1-5, how free/mobile do you think you are?
- Did this change when you came to Florence? Are you more or less “free” in Florence?
- How do you think how you look impacts your mobility in life?
- Have you ever thought about the politics of your mobility? If so, what do you think?
- After seeing the show, how do you think Ai Weiwei would define mobility/freedom?
The students we interviewed all agreed that they had a high degree of mobility. Victoria, a Junior from the Global Liberal Studies program, stated: “I think that I have an exceptional amount of mobility, especially due to being born in America and being raised in a household with decent financial security, and being able to have the opportunities to learn and express myself in different ways.” They also felt as if they had the same amount of mobility in Florence as well. Georgia, a Freshman in the Liberal Studies program, even went as far to say that she had more freedom because she “…can move by [herself] and [she doesn’t] have to tell anyone where [she is] going or what [she is] doing”.
Of course, once someone does not have to sign out to leave his or her dorm, or ask his or her parents to leave the house, they have a higher freedom of movement. The politics of that individual’s movements are affected by much deeper factors, such as their outward appearance, socio-economic status, and even the way they talk. Georgia commented on this by saying: “I’ve noticed since I’ve dyed my hair green people of older generations are quite a bit warier around me. Also have quite a distinctive accent within England, and um, as soon as I start speaking people’s opinions and attitudes towards me start changing greatly, so they tend to judge me by my look and then change their opinion very quickly when I start speaking. It’s interesting.” Students seemed to have similar interpretations of what Ai Weiwei’s definitions of freedom and mobility were. Karen, a sophomore in the Liberal Studies program, believed that Ai Weiwei saw freedom as something that many people do not need to think about, whereas others have to struggle with it every day. In my opinion, Ai Weiwei would define freedom as something that is not necessarily free. The most powerful piece in Libero was the marble surveillance camera that confronted the visitors right at the beginning of the exhibit. We are a society that lives under heavy surveillance. We must work hard in order to achieve freedom, and even then there is still something bigger watching us. Freedom is now a rare commodity that only a few can fully experience.