Chinese dissident uses Lego to highlight plight of free speech advocates 

The Lego exhibition becomes ever more relevant in wake of killing of Indian dissident and senior journalist Gauri Lankesh

Photo courtesy: Hirshorn Museum
Photo courtesy: Hirshorn Museum

Richa Sharma

In the wake of the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, which was an attack on dissent and an attempt to silence those who criticize and question their own government, I couldn’t help but wonder that suddenly how important and relevant this exhibition which I recently visited, became.

The exhibition “Trace” by a renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei is an ode to the journalists, human right activist, free speech advocates and to all of those who raised their voices against authoritarian regimes. Ai Wei Wei calls these individuals as ‘prisoners of conscience’ to honor their sufferings and hardships in defending what they stood for.

Ai Wei Wei work is inspired by his own experiences for criticizing and exposing the corruption by the Chinese government which led to his house arrest for almost three months and a ban from leaving the country until 2015. He was under constant surveillance and was detained many times for interrogation.

Through his work, he furthered the cause of human rights and freedom of expression in China and conceptualized this exhibition to include individuals from all over the world. All 176 individuals selected for the portraits experienced similar kind of atrocities because of their own beliefs or affiliations and criticism of the regime. He selected his subjects himself which so to say also included some controversial personalities.

These portraits are made from more than 1.2 million pieces of Lego blocks and are intentionally pixelated to mimic the visual one gets from surveillance footage. Apparently, Lego company initially refused to provide bulk order to his studio as they considered it too risky and political in nature. After he shared this refusal on Twitter, his massive follower base offered their own Lego collection to complete the project for an Australian exhibition. Though, later on, Lego withdrew their objection after facing a severe backlash. He especially selected Lego for this exhibition as he saw it as means through which even a complex matter can be easily expressed and saw it as an appropriate symbol for freedom.

The wallpaper used in the exhibition has its own special meaning. If you look closely, the design has the Twitter bird logo, handcuffs, surveillance camera which indicate towards how extensively Ai Wei Wei used Twitter to share his voice and challenge the government, surveillance camera to monitor him and handcuffs for his arrest. The wallpaper also an animal which is symbolic to Chinese saying “Animal that looks like a Llama but is really an Alpaca”, basically an insult to the government using clever wit.

On the one hand, we have an artist dedicating and honoring those who took a stand despite knowing repercussions and on the other hand, we saw people celebrating the cold-blooded murder of a journalist and wishing for more such incidents.

One cannot ignore the massive contrast between these emotions, you sense a feeling of disgust but also of awe for another. As I have already mentioned, all soldiers don't wear uniform or badges. Those who pay price with their life for a cause bigger than themselves, the least we can do is not be a mute spectator when some low lives are making a mockery of them. If they don't fight for us, then who will? If not for them, then for whom?

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Published: 13 Sep 2017, 4:40 PM