Ai Weiwei and (Non)Digital Database

I’ve had a thing for Ai Weiwei’s artwork ever since I saw his photograph “Study of Perspective – Tiananmen” in which he flips the bird to one of China’s cultural monuments, the Forbidden City. So, I went to his exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn this weekend.

One of the artworks on display is a list of names, birth-dates, death-dates, and genders of the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The artist ended his search at the one year anniversary of the earthquake. As the viewers stand, dwarfed by the amount of information, a recording calls out the names of the victims with a serious tone. Another installation, “Untitled”, consists of 5,335 backpacks arranged into cubes – equal to the number of children killed by the quake. This represents the same data, in a different way. (Reasonably, there is great difficulty in thinking of the deaths of these children purely as data because it seems inhumane to do so. I do not mean to think of them only as such. That being said, they are the data and subject matter of the artworks and perhaps the inhumanity of belittling lives to sets of data is a purposeful trope in Ai Weiwei’s artworks.) A third artwork, “Remembering” from his show So Sorry is an installation of 9,000 backpacks spelling out the quote “She lived happily for seven years in this world” from a earthquake victims mother.

Can we call Ai Weiwei’s works a database? Yes. He reorganizes the same materials (backpacks) or information (the deaths of children) into multiple visualizations. Especially in “Untitled” and the list of earthquake victims. You can search through the work (albeit not as easily as you can in an online database). And, hypothetically, he could continue adding information to the list of names as not all the names, birth-dates, or death-dates are filled in. He states in a TED talks video that the push for factual information and truth drives his work. So, it seems, he creates database-like art. According to Ai Weiwei, the social needs of China create a need for this kind of truthful art – the database. It is social determinism and perhaps technological determinism in one as the technological database fuels his database-like artworks.

Although not entirely “new media” because the information does not exist online, Ai Weiwei did use the internet to spread information about the earthquake, to gain volunteers, and to promote activism. His blogs have been censored and deleted by the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei stands with the list of names of children killed in the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake