The Sichuan earthquake & 90 tons of steel
90 tons of steel reinforcing bars that were destroyed and mangled in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake1 were essential components of the installation titled Straight by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The 150 rods of steel rebar used were meticulously straightened by hand after being recovered from the schools that had collapsed as a result of the earthquake. As such, Straight was created by Ai to commemorate the tragic event that ended the lives of more than 5,000 school children. Straight, therefore, evoked a real sense of loss and sadness.
Ai & activism
Throughout his successful art career, Ai has never shied away from controversy, which has helped him to unearth some difficult societal truths. Through sculpture and installation across a broad range of materials including steel and bicycles, Ai has always created artworks that address issues of oppression, Chinese identity, as well as the country’s many social problems.
Ai’s criticism direct towards the Chinese government
Like many of his installations, Straight was as provocative as it was poignant. Poorly built schools in the Sichuan Province, propped up by steel rods that were mangled in the earthquake, were devastated which left thousands of students dead. Ai had laborers straighten the rods by hand before using them to make the 90-ton floor-based installation that was laid out in broken ripples that were designed to resemble the fault lines that cause earthquakes. Ai contended that given that the schools were located on seismic fault lines, the government of China should have done a better job when constructing the schools.
Ai designed Straight to have a rolling effect on the surface which gave the installation a sort of undulating shape. When looked at from the side, Straight also resembled a Richter scale graph of an earthquake. Although the piece was certainly beautiful, it had a sense of hopelessness to it because the steel bars used did not offer protection for any of the students that died, even though the rods were specifically designed to maintain the integrity of the structures. Straight, was created to serve as a memorial piece that laid the square blame with corrupt Chinese government officials and unregulated construction companies.
Straight is an important work because it sheds light on the height of corruption and the mismanagement of resources in China. Because of the discussions elicited by the piece, Ai underwent persecution and was even detained for a number of days in prison, which speaks to the power of installation and the effect that it had in society.
All images by Ai Weiwei studio unless otherwise noted.