"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Political Prisoners @Large
April 3, 2015, 5:45 pm
Filed under: arts & literature, Asia abroad | Tags: ,

For those of you in or planning to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out @Large, Ai Wei Wei’s exhibit on Alcatraz. It closes on April 26th, so there are only a couple of weekends left to catch it!

We went a few months ago, on a characteristically misty day; with San Francisco beyond visibility, the claustrophobic sense of imprisonment loomed upon us. Within the drab, colorless prisons, you can walk among the vibrant Lego portraits and a beautifully intricate kite dragon.  There is something miraculous about the existence of this art. @Large is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Yet, as viewers, we are constantly aware of the presence of absence. In the peeling paint and water damage we sense the ghosts of the prisoners and the missing artist himself. The trick is not to rush through the exhibits. Time slows down in prison; put yourself in the shoes of political prisoners and surrender to the solitude of memory and desperation.

The best exhibit by far is Stay Tuned, a block of solitary cells big enough for just a stool, each containing a recording of a poem, song of speech about human rights from all over the world–the U.S. (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech), South Africa, Nigeria, Iran, Russia and, of course, China. It’s chilling, yet inspiring.

Warhol introduced the question: “Is it art?” But Ai Wei Wei’s work extends that question to: “Is it art or is it activism, and what’s the difference?” We all know Ai Wei Wei has serious beef with the Chinese government, but what I like about @Large is that it looks at human rights and the human spirit beyond China. Political oppression is a force wielded by individual nations but not bound to them; where there is power to be had there will be those who seek to abuse it, and there will also be those who will seek justice.

After finishing the exhibits, viewers are invited to write a postcard to one or more of a selection of political prisoners around the world.  Supposedly, the postcards would be sent to the facility in which they’re held; whether or not the postcards actually make it there, we’ll never know. Lipeng didn’t see much point in that, but I believe that slim possibilities are possibilities nonetheless, so we made a postcard anyway.  

We chose to write to Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for drafting Charter 08, a petition demanding gradual political change in China. He was detained in 2008 and isn’t expected to be released until at least 2019, if ever.

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: "Thank you for your service. Don't give up!"

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: “Your service is very important. Thank you. Don’t give up!”

Front of the postcard

Front of the postcard.

But after dropping Mr. Liu’s postcard in a bin filled with dozens of others, I found myself asking: Who will win the day? Ai Wei Wei’s life embodies the shifting, see-saw exchange of power between governments and people. He hasn’t given up–so that’s all I need to keep believing!

If you’re not in the Bay Area, or you just don’t have time to make it, I encourage you to go to the official website, where you can contemplate each exhibit from the comfort of your home.  Remote access lacks the experiential dimension of @Large, but that doesn’t make the work any less important.


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