Two important artworks by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei are on view in Davidson College’s Van Every Gallery as part of the “State of Emergency” exhibition.
Ai gained prominence worldwide for intelligently spotlighting the shortcomings of his own and other cultures.
This is certainly the intent behind the two pieces on view: “Namelist,” a 2014 site-specific print installation, and “Remembrance,” a 2010 sound installation. These work in conjunction to memorialize the deaths of 5,196 children due to poor architecture of school buildings that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.
“State of Emergency” includes work by 17 other artists and features painting, printmaking, photography, animation, sculpture and installation in response to crises of all kinds.
Curator Lia Newman said the Ai piece points the accusing finger not at the earthquake but at the failed infrastructure and government policies that allowed school buildings to exist in such a poor state.
After being given gallery dimensions, Newman said, Ai created “Namelist” for the space. The piece has been displayed in many formats before and is concurrently on view with his traveling retrospective.
The piece consists of columns of printed text on a sloped plane wedged into the room, touching the floor close to the entrance and leaning diagonally away from the viewer.
There is just enough room to enter the gallery and examine the tiny characters, though vertigo soon takes hold, and the quantity of tragic information becomes overwhelming. A mixture of tiny Chinese characters and Western numbers reveals the statistics of these young lives: a number for each recorded child, his or her name, gender, birthdate, age, school, class and information about the location of the school where the child died. There are a few blanks, and for many birthdays, only a year is given; Ai gives the impression that this information is all that will ever be known about these children.
In the same room, a speaker plays “Remembrance,” a 3-hour, 41-minute audio piece. Ai put out a call on Twitter asking his followers to record themselves reading the children’s names, then compiled the responses of the 3,444 native Chinese speakers who volunteered. To an untrained ear, it sounds like an unsympathetic Chinese audio lesson, but standing in the small room reading the names, feeling them slide toward your feet, it is intensely moving.
In exchange for an honorarium for loaning these works, Ai asked that the gallery make a donation to the Red Cross in honor of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which left a trail of destruction in the Philippines during the planning of the exhibition.
Newman said she was surprised by how willing media outlets were to show graphic images of the typhoon. Newman’s decision to include these works is an effort to avoid gratuitous scenes of death, as it “names the dead and visualizes it in a way we can look at it and think about it, but not in an exploitative way.”
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