Artistic Responses inside Political Systems
Ai Weiwei and the Art in China
Contemporary art has taken the unwritten vow of showing the worst of society. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the artistic manifestations that show such problems have to be gritty or hard to watch. On the contrary, art can take even the smallest object and convert it into a work of protest. This is the case with the highly controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who criticized the conditions of Chinese terrible labor conditions in his work “Sunflower Seeds”. Moreover, although the problem seems small in the Western’s eyes, the impressive growth of China’s economy has not come with a low price and Ai Weiwei tries to show it through his work.
Before China’s president Deng Xiaoping reformed the country’s economy in the late 1970s, the country was impoverished and economically depressed. However, thanks to those reforms, the country quickly became one of the greatest contributors to the world market. Thus, as a result of this unprecedented growth, a gray economy based on forced labor was created perpetuated through ineffective policies, corruption and lack of legal enforcement (Lepillez 1). For instance, one of the most visible and important instances of labor exploitation occurred in the Foxconn Suicides. In 2010, eighteen workers from the Foxconn Technology Group, an electronics manufacturer that assembled iPhone, iPad, and Xbox 360 related products attempted to commit suicide. From the original eighteen, fourteen succeeded (Chan 3). A study had recently said that Foxconn’s labor conditions were not that bad regarding lodging, food and pay, but the company routinely asked for more than the average 36 hours of overtime per month to its employees. Likewise, the workers did not enjoy water or bathroom breaks, as they needed to find a substitute if they wanted to leave their workplace (The Economist 1). The company answered its clients’ concerns by installing nets in the buildings and hiring counselors. Hence, although the exploitation is evident, there has been no legal action against Foxconn, which shows the inefficacy of the Chinese legal system and its ineffective enforcement of the law. After such events, it seems that China’s laws are far from perfect, which causes a great deal of inequality in the country, favoring the companies at the cost of their employees’ wellbeing. Moreover, Chinese companies have to compete and seize the profits from the American brands who more often than not outsource their manufacturing process to keep costs low, which results in strict schedules and terrible work conditions.
Undoubtedly, China’s potential is huge, not only to cover the demands of its population but it also able to take part of the world’s needs by manufacturing products in speed and cost that the economies that hire them cannot match. Plus, today’s consumer society wants cheap items that work accordingly, and if China can provide those articles, the world will instantly turn to them. Incidentally, the country’s major setback regarding human development is that willingness to take advantage of the Western’s demand of goods. This means that within the country many human rights are not respected, and the lack of free speech among its citizens makes it nearly impossible for the Western’s eyes to see. While China is portrayed as a growing economy and open society, it still regards its citizens as a means to an end, allowing companies such as Foxconn to take advantage of its employees, exploiting them to obtain higher profits. Consequently, China’s situation is rather desperate as on one hand the Western companies it serves ask them to improve its workers’ rights and benefits, often knowing that it is the lack of those rights what keeps the production affordable. On the end of the day, China’s rulers understand that they need the foreign investment to keep the country’s economy and choose to benefit the corporations over the workers. It seems that in a country like China, a supposedly communist country, these situations that relate to nineteenth’s century capitalist industrial England more than to the twenty-first-century world are rather common.
Prone to polemical politic pieces, Weiwei’s work has become a staple of Chinese cool art, showing the ugly face of the world’s largest manufacturer. By criticizing the poor conditions the workers face and the minuscule wages they earn, the artist tries to create a wake-up call for the Western world on how Chinese labor has become the world’s engine, providing the whole world with goods. On the other hand it can also be a slap in the face of the Westerners by appropriating one of the world’s most famous museums to showcase cheap Chinese labor and making it pass as art, challenging the West to change their perspectives and realize that a culture that satisfies the consumer society’s needs at the expense of a group of people is not the appropriate way to go. Sunflower Seeds can be seen as a contemporary scene of a craft that has lasted for centuries in China, but its most prominent feature is showing how the consumer society aims to alienate the workers, actually converting them into machines of who only results are expected and their strives do not matter as long as they can keep up with the production. There is the importance of Ai Weiwei’s work, exposing the large gap between the government and its officials; the companies and their commercial interests and the workers who carry all the burden and receive the smallest piece of the earnings (Weiwei and Warsh 10). To the artist, there is no use in just showing how flawed the system is. To expose the system people have to live in it and understand it.
On the other hand, the fact that Unilever, a consumer goods giant commissioned the work serves as a satire of how a multinational company endorse exploitation. Although the workers employed to create, the sunflower seeds did not suffer from exploitation, by supporting the exposition it is as if Unilever supported the means that most companies use to keep their production high. Be as it may, Ai Weiwei’s’ Sunflower Seeds relevance is noticeable. Weiwei’s work is composed of fifteen tons of small unique hand-painted sunflower seeds that are handcrafted in porcelain. Each seed was individually painted by hundreds of artisans using traditional methods, showing the true extent of the Chinese workforce and labor, inviting us to “look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.” (TATE 1) Ultimately, it seems that the nature of Weiwei’s exhibit was provoking commentaries and eliciting thought. If so, he accomplished his goal. Creating a compelling picture of the human condition. By using pieces that are part of a whole, Weiwei also symbolizes how each Chinese is part of millions of workers who keep one of the biggest economic systems afloat. However, this system, by making the workers part of a whole also dehumanizes them, stripping them of their individuality, alienating them and causing catastrophes such as the Foxconn Suicides.
Consequently, Ai Weiwei uses the mass media to show the world the invisible nature of the workers who produced the exhibit. The artist even produced a documentary that shows the process and how was the exhibit created, focusing on showing the traditional methods they use and their labor conditions. In the documentary, he showed how many workers had to take work home as they could not keep up with the production, but they needed to continue to earn their wages. Also, the video showed how many of these workers mindlessly painted thousands of these sunflowers and when asked about the nature of their jobs they did not know why would someone want that astronomical amount of seeds, but they seemed grateful to the person who commissioned it as it granted them a secure source of income to feed their families. For that reason, Sunflower Seeds shows a faithful portrait of the work conditions of the workers in China. His work displays how companies aim to alienate its workers, turning them into mindless individuals whose sole concern is producing goods that enrich others, but only serve them to earn a wage good enough to feed their families. By displaying the painstakingly delicate processes behind Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei emphasizes the cheap nature of Chinese labor, capable of producing such display, a feat that impossible to recreate employing first-world workers due to the costs.
Chan, Y. “Exploitation of Workers in China: Unveiling the Unique Capitalism Adopted in China.” Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. <http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/shaw/files/2012/wylf/Social_Paper_10_Chan.pdfhttp://www.cuhk.edu.hk/shaw/files/2012/wylf/Social_Paper_10_Chan.pdf>.
Lepillez, K. “The Dark Side of Labor in China.” Human Rights and Human Welfare Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery (2008): 59-71. University of Denver. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
“Light and Death.” Economist 27 May 2010. Print.
“The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds.” TATE Museum, 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. <http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds>.
Weiwei, A., and L. Warsh. “Introduction.” Weiwei-isms. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.