In 2010, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei famously filled London’s Tate Modern with a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. Each was hand-painted by an artisan, and the work was an oblique reference to old propaganda images depicting the Chinese population as the sunflowers of Chairman Mao. Much of Ai’s subsequent work addresses the sometimes-uneasy interplay between the individual and the rest of Chinese society, making the point that China’s varied and kaleidoscopic culture is not a monolith. It’s a theme addressed in Iron Tree, his most complex outdoor sculpture to date.
Werner Pfeiffer’s first day of school ended abruptly when everyone was whisked into an air-raid shelter as the school, located in the industrial city of Stuttgart, Germany, was leveled by Allied bombs. Pfeiffer’s vivid experiences as a child growing up during the Second World War heavily influenced his subsequent career in art. During the war, there was a severe paper shortage. Books and publications were censored, first by the Reich and then by occupying Allied forces after Europe’s liberation. Since then, the versatile artist has produced an extraordinary body work which dramatically rearranges our understanding of the nature of both paper and the book. Like much of the DADA art which inspired it, Pfeiffer’s art, often whimsical and playful, nevertheless remains capable of delivering profoundly resonant social commentary.
In 2004, thirteen men in Nepal found prospective employment at American luxury hotels through a foreign staffing agency, but they never made it to America. Flown to Iraq instead, their passports were confiscated and they were passed to insurgents; only one survived. A cursory perusal through the case summaries of the University of Michigan School of Law’s online Human Trafficking Index quickly reveals how widespread the issue actually is, as readers confront this and an ever-growing list of similar cases. Responding to the problem through her art, Michigan artist Lea Bult has created an extraordinary body of multimedia work, Out of Sight, which draws attention to modern slavery and human trafficking, reminding us that some of the most pressing social issues are invisible at first glance. Continue reading
In Northern Ireland the political establishment and art have had an interesting relationship. Publicly funded ventures are often imbibed with a special kind of significance: as evidence of progress, demonstrating smiles and fun and a visibly “new and improved” culture. There is a strange dichotomy of being seen as a kind of light relief whilst also an instigator and reflection of social change. Unfortunately, in the face of the country’s unbalanced budget, it makes for a particularly vulnerable investment. Continue reading
While intermittently living, studying, and traveling in Southeast Asia and Japan, I discovered that Western Culture understandably gets reduced to a mere handful of names and faces: Beckham, Gaga, and Bono, for example. But, such cultural distillation works both ways, and it’s regrettably easy to let a rich and voluminous fugue of 1.5 billion voices become reduced to superstar soloists like, say, Ai Weiwei. Continue reading
Quilts? As punchy, in-your-face, contemporary activist art? Absolutely! When it comes to that sort of thing, we typically think of, say, Ai Weiwei or whichever artists are basking in their fifteen minutes of blazing glory or infamy at the Brooklyn Museum. So I initially didn’t expect to be particularly moved by Earth Stories, an exhibition of quilts on display at the Michigan State University Museum, where I wandered in mostly out of intrepid curiosity. But it turns out the world of art-quilting is much more textured, artistic, and activist than I ever realized. Furthermore, these quilters aren’t just making a statement, they’re making a difference. Continue reading