Dislocating disaster : the problem with Ai Weiwei’s earthquake artworks
Kyra Nicole Arnett
May 11, 2016
Department or Program
Art History and Visual Culture Studies
On May 12, 2008 a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Sichuan province in southwest China. Chinese contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei responded to the earthquake by creating a series of "earthquake artworks" that he claims are a memorial to the over 5,000 children who died in government constructed school buildings. Implicit in Ai’s identity as a global, contemporary artist is the idea that he is a part of a plural system which acknowledges diverse sources of art production as equally valid. However, the circulation and display of Ai’s artwork depends on the ability of various institutions within the global art world to promote and sell Ai’s work to a Western audience. Ai’s rise to global prominence depended on constructions of Ai as hybrid: both Chinese and Western. This occurs through selective presentations of his biography and interpretations of his artwork that compare him to American and Western artists. As a result, when these artworks are displayed outside of China, they are unable to function as memorial and do far more to preserve the memory of Ai’s presence and activism in Sichuan than they do to commemorate the individual lives lost in the earthquake. I will argue that the construction and reception of these pieces reflects the dilemma of Chinese contemporary artists within the global art world. These so-called memorials are, in fact, superficial, self-referential artworks that commodify and aestheticize the earthquake into a form suitable for Western consumption.