AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Lydia McElroy

Ai Weiwei’s Remembering

In English, this work reads ‘She lived happily on this earth for seven years’. In 2009, it was installed on the facade of Haus der Kunst in Munich, a museum hosting an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work, titled So Sorry. Ai was permitted to install this work, which required nine thousand backpacks colored to match the shades of red, yellow and blue used in the Toys ‘R’ Us logo. With this piece, Ai was paying tribute to the countless thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008. In total, 70,000 died. So many were children due to poorly constructed school buildings built by the government. In this piece, I believe Ai Weiwei is not commenting on the tragedy as much as the censorship, secrets and lies perpetuated by the Chinese government. Ai values transparency and believes the public deserves information. He resented that lives were being forgotten due to the government’s desire to control public awareness of their failure. Ai embarked on a project to collect the names of these lost people, and made a documentary of this process titled Hua Lian Ba Er. In the documentary, he phones an agent working for the Sichuan Post-Quake Reconstruction office, asking for the most recent death toll. The agent replies that the death toll is a secret, and asks if Ai is really an American spy. Ai decides to put together a team to collect names themselves. Together, they found 5,212 names and birthdays, all of which were posted on Ai’s blog exactly a year after the tragedy. Immediately, authorities shut down his blog and his home was put under surveillance. Ai’s work lies in forming ideas and designs, and he hires a team to do all the physical executing. One member described their work in this role as being co-workers on a project, rather than hired help to Ai. This philosophy reminds me of the core principles of communism and equality valued in the Chinese people. To me, Ai does not make his work out of contempt for the Chinese government, but rather out of love for China and desire for positive change.

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, backpacks and metal armature, 2009. Image from publicdelivery.org.



“Ai Weiwei: The Sichuan earthquake & 9000 children’s backpacks.” Public Delivery. Last modified March 23, 2022. https://publicdelivery.org/ai-weiwei-remembering-haus-der-kunst-muenchen-2009/

Klayman, Alison, director. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Feltrinelli, 2013. 1 hour 31 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tlqnTEYJ00 

Weiwei, Ai. “Ai Weiwei: The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China.” The Guardian. February 15, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/15/ai-weiwei-remembering-sichuan-earthquake


Ai Weiwei

Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a poet whose participation in Communist agitation in Shanghai throughout the 1930s got him imprisoned. Ai is similarly revolutionary, as the variety of mediums he works with, including photography, sculpture, film and performance, are unified under the theme of challenging authority. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy before attending Parsons School of Design, and spent the 1980s in New York City. He returned to China in 1993 as a designer, and emerged as an outspoken intellectual. He produced Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn in 1995, a set of three photographs which document Ai holding, dropping, and standing over the remains of a 2,000 year old Han dynasty urn. Urns appear often in Ai’s work, commenting on mass consumption, individuality and censorship. In 2011, the Chinese government imprisoned him for 81 days. Ai left China in 2015, and currently resides in Berlin.

Lydia McElroy

Hi, my name is Lydia and I am a junior philosophy major with a minor in art history. I am new to Union this year, and I transferred from McGill University. I am from New York City, and I went to LaGuardia high school where I was an art major. I spend most of my free time practicing art, and I am also involved with the Mandeville Gallery as a student docent. McGill had a really terrible art history department (in my opinion) and no visual art department at all, so I feel very grateful to be here 🙂 I am particularly excited to take my art history studies outside of the western canon in this class. Included is a picture of me that my very sweet brother took.

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