Yesterday I visited two art exhibitions, and they left me overwhelmed by the power that is unleashed when people respond to difficulty, oppression or injustice by continuing to live their lives whilst seeking beauty and creating art.
The Koestler Trust annual art exhibition, ‘RE:FORM’ was hosted by the South Bank Centre in London. It is an annual display of art created by prisoners, mental health detainees, immigrants in detention, and children in secure children’s home and young offender institutions. Despite the environment the artists were working in they had produced works of incredible beauty and depth. Many related to things they have lost, or things they hope to have in the future – family predominantly. They lacked self pity. They were extremely candid.
It was an intensely moving exhibition of paintings, poetry, music, spoken word and sculpture (made from the materials available in a secure institution – paper, matches, soap, even chewed bread).
It is my own view that prison is a terrible and dehumanizing place (I work within this area, and know that there are exceptions, but for the most part it is hard to find positives about it). I find it deeply concerning that we lock so many people up rather than engaging as a society with re-building the brokenness that so often leads to offending. I really do believe that in so many instances it is a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ scenario.
For that reason I was really inspired by the artists’ responses to their situations. Whether they had committed crimes or not, they were in detention, deprived of liberty, comforts and family. A person in that situation would have reason to become angry and bitter, simply due to powerlessness, or frustration at ones own failings that had led to the situation of punishment, but these men and women were finding ways to create beauty and to share their stories, whilst they lived out their days in detention.
I travelled from there to the Royal Academy of Art in Piccadilly, London, to see the work of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist. He makes beautiful things, but he also challenges the accepted norms, and his desire to live without secrets, has caused him much hardship. He creates art in response to all that happens around him. It is heavy with meaning and he powerfully communicates difficult truths through it.
He tried to uncover the story of corruption leading to the huge death toll following an earthquake on 8th May 2008 in Sichuan province. The government opposed him, and tried to block his enquiries. He was arrested and endured beatings. His response ? Over a number of years he collected 200 tonnes of reinforcement bars from the earthquake sites, bars that were not used properly, and therefore contributed to the buildings’ weaknesses. Bars that were symbols of the shoddy, cost cutting construction methods employed. He straightened the bars as they would have been when they left the factory ready for use, and laid them out alongside 15 metre long computer printouts of the names (more than 5,000) of all the school children who were killed in the earthquake.
He was invited to build a studio in Shanghai in order to boost the cultural cache of the area. However after completion the government withdrew planning permission and ordered the demolition of his Shanghai studio. He was placed under house arrest in Bejing to prevent him from attending the studio opening, which was taking place despite the imminent demolition. His response ? He carried on with his plan to throw a crab feast for all those who wanted to attend. After demolition he created a work from the salvaged materials .
They took away his passport for four years, and his protest against that took the form of placing a bouquet of flowers in his bicycle basket outside his compound every day.
He was in the park one day with his infant son, when he realised they were being photographed. He asked and was told the man was a tourist. He wasn’t. He was an informer, and to his horror, on the memory card of the camera, Weiwei found hundreds of images of his son. His response? He made a marble pushchair – an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship.
Perhaps the most awful injustice he endured was his imprisonment without charge for 81 days, watched at every moment by two guards, and kept in solitary confinement. On a video interview at the exhibition he said that he knew that experience was intended to break him. His response ? On release he re-created his cell six times over, to show the nature of that experience. To make the hidden and the secret visible.
His work is beautiful and challenging.
In the face of opposition, injustice and wrongdoing – he makes art. He does his thing.
He hasn’t been broken. He maintains his humour – one of the galleries was wallpapered with a work he calls ‘The Finger’. And he ended his video interview with the words – ‘Art always wins’.
I came away from my day of art thinking on two things.
I reflected on how in a world teeming with injustice and difficulty we are not all called to be one thing whether that is campaigners or protestors, humanitarian aid workers or government policy officials. But we are all to do the thing we do. I don’t think we should ever believe that how we respond to a situation is inadequate if it has integrity with who we are, what we value, and what we believe.
And as a christian I’m very familiar with the words in the bible about ‘turning the other cheek’ and not seeking revenge on those who hurt us. The artists’ responses to difficulty seemed to me to illustrate this in a very complete way, finding beauty in the darkest places and using art to tell stories which we need to hear and understand.