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"Comedy" or tragedy? Ai Weiwei doesn't come to Harvard

Posted by Sebastian Smee  April 13, 2011 12:05 PM

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Thumbnail image for ai weiwei portrait.JPGAi Weiwei, the acclaimed Chinese artist who remains in detention in China, has a major outdoor installation at Harvard University right now. The work is linked to exactly the activities that have been getting Ai into so much trouble with the Chinese government.
Untitled, the work consists of nine steel frames in the shape of cubes loosely arranged in a grid on the lawn outside the Northwest Science Building on Oxford Street.
The cubes are covered with a total of 5,335 school backpacks. The work is one of Ai's multiple responses to the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake, and the subsequent "Citizens Investigation" initiated by Ai and his studio. The investigation publicized the finding that defective construction of school buildings was to blame for many of the children's deaths in the earthquake, a finding that has been denied by government authorities. The names of the victims are recited in a sound piece accompanying the work.
aiweiwei installation.jpgAi's work at Harvard is part of an engrossing exhibition called "The Divine Comedy." The shoe features installations by two other celebrated contemporary artists - Iceland's Olafur Eliasson and Italy's Tomas Saraceno - both of whom, like Ai, studied at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, which organized the show.
At a talk by Saraceno and Eliasson hosted by the Graduate School of Design's Sanford Kwinter, there was an empty chair on the stage. At intervals throughout the talk, different students placed a heavy coat on the chair, removed it, replaced it, and removed it again. The panelists were clearly thrown by the interruption. But at the end of the talk, Eliasson gratefully acknowledged the students' actions, which were clearly intended to draw attention to Ai's absence, and his current plight.
The Association of Art Museum Directors has just released a petition calling for the release of Ai.

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