The above gifs are compilations of a "project" I've been participating in over the last month-plus. Around the world, folks are keeping vigil for the "detained" Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. They regularly post to the internet pictures of sunflower seeds, their number marking the hours since his disappearance. As of 10:04 a.m. this morning (Central Daylight Time in the US), it has been 1000 hours since Ai Weiwei was seized by police. To date, no official charges or explanation for his seizure have been provided by the authorities. Nor is he the only artist or outspoken citizen to be seized in China in the last few months.
|"Sunfower Seeds" (2010) Ai Weiwei|
The choice to use sunflower seeds to mark the hours is in reference to his recent installation at the Tate Modern in London, Sunflower Seeds. In that work, Weiwei covered the floor of a gallery with 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. Among other themes in the work, the installation represents a dialectic tension between the individual and the masses -- each seed individually crafted yet part of a massive carpet on the gallery floor. In other words, we are always simultaneously unique individuals and part of a collective; we draw our power from both.
|"Sunflower Seeds" (2010) Ai Weiwei|
I first became aware of Ai Weiwei's work through @Platea. (A few folks involved with that international social media art collective actually work with Ai Weiwei.) Weiwei also works with social media, sometimes as art and more often as activism (though, of course, usually as both). It is this combination of social justice, social media, and artistic practice that attracts me to his work. His plight reminds me of the importance of freedom of speech and the need for a citizenry to be able to hold its government accountable. Perhaps wrongly, too many of us hoped that Ai Weiwei's international celebrity would protect him from abuse at the hands of his government. 1000 hours into the collapse of that hope, it is tempting to give up...to admit defeat.
But there is something about his work and this project that suggests otherwise.
|"Study in Perspective" (1995) Ai Weiwei|
The international outrage immediately after his disappearance may have lessened, but it has not gone away. For me, the slow accumulation of days, photographs, posts, and seeds in a jar speak to the power and importance of Weiwei's work: the vigil builds its own momentum, becomes its own daily practice, a regular contemplation of freedom and its abuse. There is something visually appealing in each individual photo, but also an increasing power in the mass of them -- a power exponentially greater when multiplied across the world. By itself, my little vigil is nothing much -- less than a discarded seed on a concrete floor. But it is not by itself -- nor is Ai Weiwei.
|5/1/2011 7:04 pm CDT: 698 hours|
In posting these images each day, I keep my tally of the accumulated hours and end with the phrase: "He is not alone." In the word-economy of micro-blogging, this phrase references much: that Ai Weiwei is not the only one unjustly held by the Chinese police; that there are people in the world who care about him; that we are all connected; that we are all in this world together.
I am fortunate (today) not to be held secretly in prison by my government. But as Ai Weiwei and too many others remind us, that is far from an assured or permanent condition. Freedom requires those with it to fight for it and to fight for those without it. In big ways. In small ways. Everyday.
|5/14/2011 10:04 am CDT: 1000 hours|