24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

The Life Changing Artwork of Ai Weiwei – Remembering

In his retrospective show So Sorry (October 2009 to January 2010, Munich, Germany), Ai Weiwei created the installation Remembering on the façade of the Haus der Kunst. It was constructed from nine thousand children's backpacks. They spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters (this was a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake) with Toys R Us color. Regarding this work, Weiwei said, “The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.”

The title of the show referred to the apologies frequently expressed by governments and corporations when their negligence leads to tragedies, such as the collapse of schools during the earthquake. As the Chinese government tried to hide the catastrophe, Ai WeiWei defied them by seeking to find the truth. He wanted to know how many children were killed so he set up a team to collect data from families in the affected villages. The work included struggle too, as he took the risk to tell the truth. His details of the story show his purpose behind the work was not just for the sake of making art. Ai says that with his piece, in “ Chinese society, with censorship and control, individuals can still take action to defend their very, very fragile rights.” He explains how even though he created a lot of work about the Sichuan earthquake, “this one had a profound impact on how I deal with social and political issues.” Overall, the journey of making “Remembering,” and the consequences it had, are important to Ai WeiWei.

Ai Weiwei and his Story

Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential and equally controversial Chinese artists in recent history. He became famous worldwide in 2009 thanks to his highly celebrated art project, Remembering , an art piece he created to honor over 80,000 Chinese, most of whom were school children who perished in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was so captivating and popular that it rubbed the Chinese ruling regime the wrong way, and Ai Weiwei’s career has never been the same.

Many critics address both Weiwei’s art and his fight for activism. For example, Christian Sorace, a PhD scholar specializing in development and political theory in China, wrote a paper about Ai WeiWei’s artistic connection to political thought. He explains political reactions to Ai’s work and Ai’s personal involvement in politics. Ai is an activist and uses China’s political conditions as his material for art. Sorace quotes Ai, saying, “Taking contradictions and making them public is my best weapon.” Sorace details how Ai’s different works provoke political controversy, just as his piece “Remembering” does. This political controversy has even led to Ai’s detainment and arrest.

On April 3rd 2011, Weiwei was arrested at Beijing's airport while waiting for a flight to Hong Kong. While his detention is broadly believed to be linked to his criticism of the Chinese government, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that he is “under investigation for alleged economic crimes.” Weiwei's participation in the Jasmine Rallies, a series of peaceful protests which took place all over China in February, no doubt contributed to his arrest. Since his detainment, Ai has been kept under constant surveillance by the government—a circumstance that has led him to create a series of new works.

Eyes from All Around the World

Authors from all over the world were drawn to Weiwei’s work, commenting without fear of the backlash from the Chinese government. Some authors I read explained how touched they were by Remembering. Each one gave me a new perspective on Ai’s work and the absurdity of the events that inspired it. The articles all described the piece and how it showcased the more than 9,000 deaths of schoolchildren. The sources were written by a foreigner, a non-Chinese citizen, which shows how the Chinese government does not allow publication on Ai Weiwei, as well as how internationally renowned he is. Because the critics are foreigners, they are free to discuss the corruption of the Chinese government as it pertains to the tragedy that sparked Remembering . Christian Sorace details all of what happened behind the piece, such as the forced silence of the families affected by the death of schoolchildren. Sorace describes how Ai’s piece shows the way the government handled the situation of mass death: “Ai is attuned to the sensitive point that state performance is not for individuals but for the collective naming of a group… for Ai, to the deceased is a matter of how many individuals there were and who they were.”

The Symbolism of Remembering – A Controversial Artwork.

“What is most remarkable about Weiwei is his ability to traverse between just about any art form, from political activism to design to visual arts and everything in between,” states an article on Public Delivery. Which is why I wanted to honor his work such as Remembering that triggered a lot of events afterwards. It is not the work itself that is controversial but all of the meaning around it which is my description of the work of art.

Ai Weiwei engages with politics in a controversial way. He is not afraid of criticizing the government and using digital media to do so. The meaning of “Remembering” includes the expression of grief through the backpacks, but also, because of the nature of Ai’s work, the meaning includes the struggle he went through to complete the work. The struggle Ai went through to investigate the earthquake damage, and the struggle of the censorship of Chinese people, is what makes the art such a big piece. His willingness to take risks makes his art even more important. The impression of “Remembering,” and the exhibit overall, impacted humanity. “Remembering” is not only a visual piece of expression, it is a voice for Ai Weiwei that reaches beyond the art world to government, foundations of Chinese political society, and human rights activists.

Remembering, an artwork that achieved what artists tried to do for centuries.

Ai's motive is universal.

Ai Weiwei’s art has long protested his government's oppression of its people. His tweets are no different. Ai was banned from Chinese Twitter (Sina Weibo) and his blog was shut down by Chinese forces.

“I consider all of my expressions a part of my art. Sometimes it takes a traditional form or language and, at other times, it requires the creation of a new language. However, they are all the same. Art is to express yourself through a medium in order to successfully communicate with another.”

Effectively, Ai Weiwei has spread his ideas as a political blogger and used the internet to bring awareness to the earthquake school disaster. Even though he gets into trouble for the purpose of raising awareness, he still gives interviews and keeps relationships with the press. Ai WeiWei’s art, activist role, and the media—where his art is spread, which is the only way for him to be known as he is censored by the Chinese government.

“Twitter is a very interesting medium. It is not one that records the past, but one that forms in the present condition, with real connections to the future. It is so intimate but, at the same time, so broadly connects us to others. Humans have never had this in our history. By changing the way we communicate, it changes our understanding of ourselves and others. That gives a new definition to our society, to democracy, civil rights, and humanity as well.”

Overall, with Twitter, Ai Weiwei was able to attain a certain “freedom of expression.” It is an essential quality of a free and civilised society. He sometimes considers that it requires a form fit for a fixed space with a fixed audience, such as a gallery or museum. Other times, it is about engaging a different audience.

“I am always interested in discovering new possibilities for reaching new audiences.” Before social media, artists such as Ai Weiwei did not have the chance to express themselves in the public realm, not as much as they can nowadays. Artists throughout history have tried to defy authority to freely express their opinions. However, because of access to the Internet, artists today are able to reach a bigger audience and spread their controversial work despite authority. For artists, there can be nothing better than this. Human beings are not created equal and we have never had that opportunity. Technology, especially with computers and the Internet, has gone further than anything else in leveling the field and allowing freedom of expression. This was unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Other Ai Weiwei work on Sichuan Earthquake all over the world

In 2009, Ai Weiwei created Remembering in honor of the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. As the artist consider this art piece as the one that had a “profound impact on how [he] deal with social and political issues.”, he made a lot more other work relating to the earthquake which had a huge impact on his subsequent output. His work reflects his life, consciousness, sensitivity and skill in dealing with different matters. This was especially true of Remembering. At the end, The Sichuan earthquake really left a mark on his work as he made many more throughout the years :

Remembrance 《念》
2010, voice recording, 7h 22m 37s .

On April 24, 2010 at 00:51, Ai Weiwei (@aiww) started a Twitter campaign to commemorate students who perished in the earthquake in Sichuan on May 12, 2008. 3,444 friends from the Internet delivered voice recordings, the names of 5,205 perished were recited 12,140 times.
“Remembrance” is an audio work dedicated to the young people who lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake. It expresses thoughts for the passing of innocent lives and indignation for the cover-ups on truths about sub-standard architecture, which led to the large number of schools that collapsed during the earthquake.

so sorry《深表遗憾》
video, 54m 41s

As a sequel to Ai Weiwei’s film Lao Ma Ti Hua, the film So Sorry (named after the artist’s 2009 exhibition in Munich, Germany) shows the beginnings of the tension between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese Government. In Lao Ma Ti Hua, Ai Weiwei travels to Chengdu, China to attend the trial of the civil rights advocate Tan Zuoren, as a witness. In So Sorry, you see the investigation led by Ai Weiwei studio to identify the students who died during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of corruption and poor building constructions leading to the confrontation between Ai Weiwei and the Chengdu police. After being beaten by the police, Ai Weiwei traveled to Munich, Germany to prepare his exhibition at the museum, Haus der Kunst. The result of his beating led to intense headaches caused by a brain hemorrhage and was treated by emergency surgery. These events mark the beginning of Ai Weiwei’s struggle and surveillance at the hands of the state police.

Little Girl's Cheeks 《花臉巴兒》
2008, video, 1h 18m 4s

On December 15, 2008, a citizens' investigation began with the goal of seeking an explanation for the casualties of the Sichuan earthquake that happened on May 12, 2008. The investigation covered 14 counties and 74 townships within the disaster zone, and studied the conditions of 153 schools that were affected by the earthquake. By gathering and confirming comprehensive details about the students, such as their age, region, school, and grade, the group managed to affirm that there were 5,192 students who perished in the disaster. Among a hundred volunteers, 38 of them participated in fieldwork, with 25 of them being controlled by the Sichuan police for a total of 45 times. This documentary is a structural element of the citizens' investigation.

2009, looped video, 1h 27m

At 14:28 on 12 May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake happened in Sichuan, China. Over 5,000 students in primary and secondary schools perished in the earthquake, yet their names went unannounced. In reaction to the government's lack of transparency, a citizen's investigation was initiated to find out their names and details about their schools and families. As of 2 September 2009, there were 4,851 confirmed. This video is a tribute to these perished students and a memorial for innocent lives lost.

Fukushima Art Project
2015, video, 30

This documentary on the Fukushima Art Project is about artist Ai Weiwei's investigation of the site as well as the project's installation process. In August 2014, Ai Weiwei was invited as one of the participating artists for the Fukushima Nuclear Zone by the Japanese art coalition Chim↑Pom, as part of the project Don't Follow the Wind. Among these photos featured in the video, six of them were taken from the site investigation at the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; two were taken during the time when he was illegally detained after pleading the Tan Zuoren case in Chengdu, China in August 2009; and three others taken during his surgical treatment for his head injury from being attacked in the head by police officers in Chengdu; five taken of him being followed by the police and his Beijing studio Fake Design under surveillance due to the studio tax case from 2011 to 2012; four are photos of Ai Weiwei and his family from year 2011 to year 2013; and the other two were taken earlier of him in his studio in Caochangdi (One taken in 2005 and the other in 2006).


150 tons of twisted steel reinforcements recovered from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake building collapse sites were straightened out and displayed as an installation.

According to what?

Ai's visual art includes sculptural installations, woodworking, video and photography. "Ai Weiwei: According to What," adapted and expanded by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden from a 2009 exhibition at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, was Ai's first North American museum retrospective. It opened at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. in 2013, and subsequently traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and two other venues. His works address his investigation into the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake and responses to the Chinese government's detention and surveillance of him.His recent public pieces have called attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.



“ Ai WeiWei. So Sorry.” Haus Der Kunst , 2009, https://hausderkunst.de/en/exhibitions/ai-weiwei-so-sorry.

Weiwei, Ai. “Ai Weiwei: The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China.” The Guardian, 15 February 2018.

Sorace, Christian. “China’s Last Communist: Ai Weiwei.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 2, The University of Chicago Press Journals, Winter 2014, pp. 396–419.

May Provide Lessons for America.” The Compass, vol. 1, iss. 1, Arcadia University, April 2014.

Ming Wai Jim, Alice. “The Politics of Indignation: Art, Activism and Ai Weiwei.” esse arts + opinions, no. 77, Érudit, winter 2013, pp. 46–54.

“What is Ai Weiwei doing with 9000 children’s backpacks?” https://publicdelivery.org/ai-weiwei-remembering-haus-der-kunst-muenchen-2009/ )

“So Sorry.” Ai Weiwei . https://www.aiweiwei.com/documentaries/so-sorry/index.html.

“AI WEIWEI: ACCORDING TO WHAT?”, Hirshhorn, October 72012 - February 24 2013 https://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/ai-weiwei-according-to-what-about-the-exhibit/

Ai Weiwei, “Name list Investigation” https://www.aiweiwei.com/projects/5-12-citizens-investigation/name-list-investigation/index. html

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