Ai Weiwei Part 3 (The background - foreground playground)

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Mon, March 11, 2013 - 9:48:52

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist with a recently closed show at the Hirschorn, memorializes the dead children of the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake in another form besides that mentioned in my last two postings. He accounts for them by listing out their names and information about them, one to a cell, on large sheets of thick light-green paper lined with darker green. 

Then, he violates the sanctity of the plane; he pastes in pictures of the children that are larger than the allotted space. But only some of them are there. He makes it clear that we do not, as it were, have the full picture. 

One of my correspondents wrote to me privately mentioning how moving she found this piece. I also had a strong response, but it was quite different: I found it horrifying. 

On reflection, she was focusing on the foreground and I on the background. She was seeing the names; I was seeing the context. 

She was, perhaps, seeing an homage to Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, which similarly lists out names. But I was seeing an anti-memorial. This is not a gash in the landscape, built from marble, meant to last. This is a database. It is accounting with the implication “filed and forgotten.”

I struggle with myself over this reading. Perhaps paper is appropriate. What is it we remember about a dead child? Keats famously (wrongly) had inscribed on his tombstone "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." Can we say that a child who dies has a name writ more heavily than on paper? The Roman poet Catullus wrote an elegy upon the death of a very young girl in which he asks the earth to weigh lightly upon her, as she trod lightly upon it. Paper wafts. Indeed, paper is burnt in adult Chinese funerals. So, in this way, to my American mind, paper seems like an apt representational choice for dead children. 

And yet, the piece did not have those effects on me. This is not wispy paper. This is accounting paper: crisp, professional, delineated, demarcated, and speaking of entablature. These qualities are all reminders of adults: adult systems, adult accounting, adult rectitude.

By giving the paper an official quality, making it a listing, it puts the memory of these children at the juxtaposition of the irreducibly light properties of their lives on the one hand, and on the other of the system that controlled their lives and, as it turned out, refuses to bear the full weight of their deaths. So, the piece tries to go beyond the practices of accounting to become an accounting. The artist is trying to call to the system to account. 

But, you see, to my mind, he fails. He may try, weakly, to break out of the systemic constraints with a few pictures—there may have even been some other little adornments that I no longer recollect—but he does not adequately represent the children. Only the implacable little demarcated database entries.

Or perhaps this is success. The horror that I experienced devolves from inadequacy of the system. There is no accounting without counting the children (what Ai Weiwei asks for from the Chinese government), but making the children—their lives and deaths—count is the real accounting.

Posted in: on Mon, March 11, 2013 - 9:48:52

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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