Book Excerpt: Ai Weiwei on @Large
The first word that comes to mind in relation to this project is freedom. As an artist, I live in a society where freedom is incredibly precious. We strive for it daily and put forth a great amount of effort, sometimes sacrificing everything to protect this value, to insist on freedom. Freedom for me is not a fixed condition but a constant struggle. I think it is very important for artists to focus on the freedom of expression, a value essential for any creative endeavor. . . .
In 2011, I was detained by the Chinese government in an almost hostage-like situation, and since my release I have been held in what some would call a “soft” detention. The government has never formally charged me, but in China my name has been censored on the Internet, in the media, and even in exhibitions featuring my own work. Even after sixty-five years of rule, the government has never recognized the rights of the people. We cannot vote, and we have no independent judicial system or independent media apart from state control. Freedom, indeed, is a word that carries a great deal of weight for the Chinese people.
In @Large, we are presenting the likenesses or voices of almost two hundred political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who have very different stories and backgrounds. But these are all nonviolent people who have lost their freedom simply because they expressed their ideas, imprisoned for trying to improve their conditions through writing or peaceful protesting. Many of them might stay in jail for the rest of their lives or be forgotten by the general public, but in truth they are heroes of our time. They may be hidden in dark corners, in unknown places — their names are never spelled out proudly like those considered the founders of our civilizations. But while their work is less visible, it will never be less important. It is through their efforts that we can still live peacefully in a civilized society. This exhibition is an attempt to mark their names and their fight against oppression more visibly. . . .
I hope @Large will help build understanding and awareness about our history and current conditions. Today the whole world is still struggling for freedom, and there is nothing ahead but more struggle; many of my friends are still in jail for utterly nonsensical reasons, and the power that put them there has no respect for the law. In such a situation, only art can reveal the deep inner voice of every individual with no concern for political borders, nationality, race, or religion. This exhibition could not come at a better time — though, when one is fighting for freedom, any time is the right time. Freedom is meant to be collectively protected and shared; you are protecting not only yourself but also others fighting for the same cause.
Any artist who isn’t an activist is a dead artist. I try to make my works honestly with respect to my life, to reflect the place and time in which I live. I hope that when future generations see my work they will understand my struggle as an artist. I also hope that visitors to @Large will be conscious of artists’ efforts to protect freedom of speech and expression, and that they gain an understanding of the purpose of art, which is the fight for freedom.
— Ai Weiwei