“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei
After driving carpools to schools on opposite ends of town last Thursday morning, I put a feline fecal sample on ice in the trunk–oh! my glamorous life!–and made my way through the pouring rain toward Pier 39. As a San Francisco resident, I avoid that part of town like the plague. It’s crowded, kitschy, and leaves me feeling swindled and somewhat culpable. Did you make your way from some other continent to eat substandard, overpriced clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl? I’m sorry. I am.
This time it was worth the effort and the heinous traffic, however. This time I was accompanying an art class on a field trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz.
It had felt like an indefensible luxury to take time from what I was supposed to be doing–working, tending to three sick foster kittens, preparing my presentation for the next day. What business did I have squandering four hours on art?
What I had forgotten is that art is not a luxury at all.
Art is good for the soul. Making it, viewing it, contemplating it, discussing it. It is the means for communication when mere words cannot convey what needs to be said. Art can speak truth to power, it can enlighten, it can challenge; it can soothe or amuse or complement the sofa. I’m not saying that all art is important, but rather that being able to do it and see it and think about it is vital. Where Ai Weiwei lives, his ability to make art is tenuous. He has been imprisoned and, after his release, continually harassed. His studio has been torn down by the local government in Beijing. He is forbidden to leave China.
I recall being in a snit once in art school, stressed out about some goofy project I had concocted–making portraits of George Bush by drizzling motor oil, of all things. “What am I doing noodling around in the garage while people are starving out there in the world?” I lamented to a friend. And she responded, “What sort of world would it be without any art?”
I think we both have a point.
Though unable to leave his country, Ai has somehow managed to create a provocative and politically charged show at a provocative and politically charged place. There are kites and legos and audio installations. You can sit in a cell and hear orchestral compositions written in a concentration camp or, a few cells down, hear songs by Fela Kuti, and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. You can read about the charges against 176 political prisoners and exiles from around the world, and write them letters while sitting in the prison dining hall. These are “the heroes of our time,” as Ai says. They have had the courage to speak up, and they are paying a high price.
Ai Weiwei’s vision has landed on our windowsill. Go and see it if you can. 1.4 billion people will never lay eyes on it.