Ai Weiwei uses clever wordplay to speak about censorship

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Royal Academy of Arts in London
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Royal Academy of Arts in London
Photo: Hélène/excuse-me-i-am-french.com

“My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people.” – Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio torn down by government

Artist Ai Weiwei, it seems, is always surrounded by controversy whether it is in relation to his visual masterpieces or his activism. Mr. Ai’s run-ins with the Chinese government have continued to border on danger, but the revered artist is always willing to include these elements in his performance art. In 2010, Ai ran into the Chinese police in an unfortunate encounter whereby the local government tore down a large new studio1 that Ai had built in Shanghai as a result of ‘code violations’.

The lead up to He Xie (Crabs) – 河蟹

Before the studio was demolished, Ai hosted a dinner at the Shanghai studio, which he was barred by the government from attending, as a satirical nod to the studio’s planned destruction by the administration. The dinner was characterized by one of Ai’s most talked about installations- He Xie (crabs).

What the title references

As the name suggests, the installation consisted of 3,000 incredibly real-like river crabs piled up across a corner of a room. Ai Wei Wei titled the work He Xie, which is a homonym for harmony and a phrase that is used regularly by the government. He Xie, according to sources, also refers to a slang term that represents internet censorship2.

The meaning of Ai Weiwei’s porcelain crabs

Ai Wei used porcelain crabs to represent himself; an artist whose voice has been restricted by authorities and has been forced to remain uncomfortably in a space that he does not belong in, motionless and restful. In the installation, a single crab was placed on a skirting board to symbolize the Ai Weiwei who it appears had managed to reclaim his passport3 for an amazing chance to show his artworks outside China for the first time in years.

About Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei might be the most popular international artist of his time and the greatest Chinese advocate and campaigner of all time. This artist is also a famed architect; case in point, he played an instrumental role in helping to design the Beijing Olympic Stadium4 (the Bird’s Nest) alongside Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects that were commissioned to design the project.

Ai Weiwei as a voice of freedom

Over the past few years, the portly and easily recognizable Ai Weiwei has emerged as an eloquent voice of freedom, helping to shed light on the atrocities and the repressiveness of Chinese authorities and the administration in general. His most significant visual installations vary in size and magnitude, but they all play an instrumental role in changing Chinese culture and society5.

Photos

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Royal Academy of Arts in London
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Royal Academy of Arts in London
Photo: Hélène/excuse-me-i-am-french.com

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs) at Pérez Art Museum Miami
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Pérez Art Museum Miami
Photo: Daniel Azoulay photography/pamm.org

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs)
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs) at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 2013
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 2013
Photo: Pam/arthag.typepad.com

Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013
Photo: Sonya/aznmodern.com

Ai Weiwei porcelain river crab installation He Xie at the Royal Academy of Arts in London 2
Ai Weiwei – He Xie (crabs), 3200 porcelain crabs, Royal Academy of Arts in London
Photo: Liza Hearon/mashable.com

All images by Ai Weiwei studio unless otherwise noted.

Related works

Related readings

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12174873
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphemisms_for_Internet_censorship_in_China
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/22/ai-weiwei-free-to-travel-overseas-again-after-china-returns-his-passport
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_National_Stadium
  5. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140401-the-most-important-artist-alive
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