‘Straight’ by artist Ai Weiwei is not straight forward. It is a monumental floor-based sculpture made up of 90 tons of carefully arranged steel rods. The huge number of rusty rods laid out is mesmerising. They have been arranged in broken undulations to make up a large rectangle on the gallery floor. But the works stylistic simplicity contrasts sharply with its conceptual complexity.
Weiwei recovered the steel rods from school buildings which had been destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. The earthquake destroyed some twenty schools and killed over 5,000 people. Mangled and bent from the damage, Weiwei had the rods straightened back into shape for his sculpture. He has also included the names of the victims on the walls of the gallery along with a documentary video as part of the installation.
The work is as much about documenting the disaster as it is about remembering the loss of life. The schools had been cheaply built by contractors and located on seismic fault lines. The information retrieved by Ai Weiwei had been hidden and covered up by the Chinese government. The presentation of ‘Straight’ is an act of defiance in revealing the truth. The piece is also very still and peaceful. Its monumental size encourages the viewer to contemplate the scale of the loss of human life.
Ai Weiwei’s work often explores the role of the Chinese government in reported human rights abuses. As a prominent critic of the government Weiwei has regularly suffered censorship at the hands of the Chinese authorities. In 2011, Weiwei was imprisoned without trial for 80 days. But he remains one of the most influential contemporary artists.
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