Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Where art, social activism meld

Ai Weiwei self portrait surrounded by supporters and police. (Supplied)

By K.D. Norris


When asked about the artist Ai Weiwei, Ping Liang — board chair of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, international businesswoman, and a Chinese-American with a deep understanding of modern Chinese culture — readily defers artistic questions to the Garden’s chief curator.


But both she and Joseph Antenucci Becherer, who serves as Meijer Gardens vice president in addition to his curatorial duties, understand that to appreciate Weiwei one must go deeper than simply his art. One must understand his history and his culture, especially his social activism both inside his rigidly controlled home county and around the world.


Ping Liang, board chair of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, and chief curator Joseph Antenucci Becherer, in the main gallery of the exhibit “Ai Weiwei at Meijer gardens: Natural State”. (WKTV)


“I came to know Ai Weiwei’s reputation through the 2008 Olympic stadium, called the Bird’s Nest. At that time, his name wasn’t taken in a very good light because of the Chinese media, which is very controlled,” Liang said, as she and Becherer sat together with WKTV recently and dove deep into the exhibition Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State, which is running though Aug. 20.


Detail “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” in Legos image. (Supplied)

“We only knew him, according to the Chinese media, as a person who purposely broke a very valuable antique jar. We also heard he used vulgar language, kind of insults, purposely. So, I didn’t really know too much about him. Of course, when Joe, here, talked (to us) about Ai Weiwei, as an artist, I was like ‘Wow!’”


And as she dug a little deeper, what Liang found was much more than simply an artist as portrayed by the Chinese media.


“He has this very famous family, particularly his father, Ai Ching, a very famous poet in China, and how his family suffered during the Cultural Revolution, even though his father was a very prominent and early Communist Party member,” she said. “And when we look at some of (Weiwei’s) artwork, the insults, and some of the themes, I started to understand. He is actually a social activist. That was very rare in China.”


‘Everything is politics’


Becherer, too, advocates for an understanding of the artist’s politics as well as his art — it is no coincidence that one of Ai Weiwei’s most well known sayings is “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” Blending his art and his politics is, in fact, the “natural state” of Weiwei’s world.


Joseph Becherer, Meijer Gardens vice president and chief curator. (WKTV)

“I think it always makes it more meaningful to know something about an artist’s biography when you are looking at their painting or their sculpture or whatever their work happens to be, because we all carry some part of us with us into whatever it is we do for a profession,” Becherer said. “With someone like Weiwei, it is probably more of an extreme, because for him art and life are inseparable.”


Becherer, in an essay accompanying the exhibit, states that Ai Weiwei’s art was influenced by, among others factors, his father’s life and clashes with the government, the artist’s growing up isolated from modern industrial China and being influenced by “traditions and artisan efforts of rural China,” followed by his emersion into Beijing’s late 1970s youthful avantgarde and his spending much of the 1980s in New York City before retiring to Beijing in 1993 when his father fell ill.


Maybe most importantly, however, Ai Weiwei’s art is influenced by increased use of social media and increased social activism — including his criticism of the Chinese government in the aftermath of the 2008’s Sichuan earthquake.


“In the following years,” Becherer’s essay states, “Ai Weiwei came under surveillance and was beaten, hospitalized and denied the right to travel. In 2011, he was arrested and mysteriously detained for 81 days, to the shock of the international cultural community.”


It was not long after that Ai Weiwei become a worldwide cause célèbre — and Becherer and Meijer Gardens began their interest and relationship with the artist as part of the the Garden’s pursuit of acquiring the massive sculpture “Iron Tree”.


Ai Weiwei’s “Iron Tree” has been on display for two years, but now an extensive exhibition of the artist’s works is on view. (Supplied)

“We started visiting Weiwei more than three and a half years ago, it was initially about acquiring ‘Iron Tree’,” Becherer said during the recent interview about his first meeting with the artist, who was practically under house arrest at the time. “Our process has always been that we try to engage directly with the artist. We want to understand, obviously, how the artist is living, how things come together, how things came to be. So, we began out of that, the very beginning, a sincere desire to know more about him. … It started out in one way, but it evolved and this exhibition was the result.”


And the exhibition is another example of Ai Weiwei’s continuing evolution.


“He seems to be more and more engaged in universal ideas,” Becherer said. “He seems to be more engaged with global concepts of freedom of speech and human rights. So it (his art), yes, is still related to his biography and, yes, it is related to his nationality and his heritage. But he seems to be more comfortable with the world stage.”


Now on the world stage


In July 2015, Ai Weiwei’s passport was returned and he was able to travel once again. Today, he divides his time between Beijing and Berlin, where he maintains studios.


It was in Berlin, in 2009, that Ai Weiwei created a massive exhibit of 9,000 children’s backpacks on the side of a building, backpacks which represented the number of children who lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake — with colored backpacks spelling out “For seven years she lived happy on this earth,” a sentence with which a mother commemorated her daughter.


And the artist’s focus on social activism, and his influence both in and outside of China, has not changed according to Liang, who has more than 30 years experience in international business including extensive work in China and throughout Asia as managing director of AlphaMax Advisors LLC as well as serving on the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. She says Ai Weiwei’s example and causes have greatly impacted her and many of her friends and business associates around the world.


Ping Liang, board chair of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. (WKTV)

“Now I realize he actually inspired the birth of modern social activism in China,” Liang said. “He and his friends were so active when Sichuan earthquake took place, and the aftermath, when thousands of young children were killed. I remember seeing, on global media as well as Chinese media, the devastation, the building collapsed, and the cry of parents whose only children lost their lives in this earthquake. … Now I look back, I understand that he was trying to raise people’s awareness about what really happened. What you really need to know. This should not be kept as a secret. That is why I describe him as an inspiration for the very beginning of social awareness and activism.


“In terms of his impact on the world, it is huge,” she added. “When I travel around the world, everybody talks about Ai Weiwei … People realize he was actually trying to get social justice for the earthquake victims. Actually, because of that a lot of Chinese, overseas Chinese, started donating to the earthquake victims. And a lot of young people started volunteering for non-profit organizations. I thought that was just tremendous. This is the impact he has had.”


Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State is more than 30 works including iconic works from the artist’s repertoire and work specific to Meijer Gardens located in galleries, conservatories, public spaces and the auditorium. For more information visit .