Artist Ai Weiwei Gives the Finger to Symbols of Authority Around the World

Artist Ai Wei­wei has been giv­ing the fin­ger to author­i­ty for most of his career in a fig­u­ra­tive sense, butting heads with Chi­nese cen­sors, and refus­ing to tame his mes­sage even after sev­er­al arrests, bans, and beat­ings. Fight­ing has been with him his entire life: his father, Ai Qing, a renowned poet, was declared a “class ene­my” in 1967 and sent to a forced labor camp, along with his fam­i­ly, when Ai Wei­wei was only 10 years old.

His pho­tog­ra­phy series, Study of Per­spec­tive (1995 to 2003)–which you can see in the video above–is a lit­er­al flip­ping of the bird to sym­bols of pow­er across the globe, from the White House to a nest of CCTV cam­eras, and makes explic­it the artist’s non-vio­lent form of dis­sent.

The video above is a mini-doc made for the first major Ai Wei­wei ret­ro­spec­tive in Greece, at The Muse­um of Cycladic Art, run­ning through Octo­ber 30, 2016. (It’s also his first exhi­bi­tion in an arche­o­log­i­cal muse­um.) Along with show­ing the artist giv­ing the fin­ger to author­i­ty, it high­lights Ai Weiwei’s recent works on the refugee cri­sis.

“The whole sit­u­a­tion is so des­per­ate,” he says, “because you don’t see human con­nec­tions in those events. It’s com­plete­ly cut off.”

In the past, Ai Wei­wei has wrapped the pil­lars of a Ger­man con­cert hall in life vests, cov­ered pre­vi­ous sculp­tures with gold­en ther­mal blan­kets, recre­at­ed the famous pho­to of the drowned Syr­i­an child on the shore, and has shut down his own shows over anti-refugee laws in Europe.

At a 2015 march in Lon­don, Ai Wei­wei and fel­low artist Anish Kapoor flipped the bird over on Kapoor’s Insta­gram account as an invi­ta­tion to the aware­ness-rais­ing protest. (They also told fel­low walk­ers to bring a sin­gle blan­ket as a sym­bol of the refugees’ sit­u­a­tion.)

The sparse nar­ra­tion by the artist may sound fatal­is­tic in the video, but he’s a man who knows the pow­er of protest. But he also knows the con­se­quences.

“What I have always been involved in is human rights,” he says. “The human strug­gle and the free­dom of speech. Those val­ues are not giv­en by any­body. It always comes through fight­ing and strug­gle. Because some­body has to defend it. And also, if just one per­son defends it, it ben­e­fits every­body.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The God­dess: A Clas­sic from the Gold­en Age of Chi­nese Cin­e­ma, Star­ring the Silent Film Icon Ruan Lingyu (1934)

The His­to­ry of the Seem­ing­ly Impos­si­ble Chi­nese Type­writer

The Syr­i­an Con­flict & The Euro­pean Refugee Cri­sis Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Primer

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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