Art as Activism | Roots Run Deep, the work of Ai Weiwei
All great art will stand the test of time. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has produced a number of monumental cast iron sculptures of endangered Brazilian tree roots for the Lisson Gallery in London. Aptly named “Roots,” the series of works explores themes of displacement and deforestation.
Ai Weiwei’s work is underpinned by political activism. Weiwei is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s tough stances on human rights and democracy and is now an exiled dissident who has found his home in Portugal. His artistic response to these subjects and themes – through an incredibly diverse multidisciplinary practice – has made Weiwei one of the great artists of our time.
Perhaps most famous, Weiwei is recognized for his work Dropping a Han dynasty urn, 1995. As the title suggests, Weiwei dropped a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty ceremonial urn and captured the process in a triptych of photographs. This symbolic act of destroying a precious historical artifact was Weiwei’s portrayal of the evils of Mao’s regime and, understandably, garnered a lot of attention around the world.
The great power of art is that it can hold our attention over time – its subject matter even becoming more and more relevant as the years pass. In 2019, Weiwei produced a number of cast iron sculptures from the roots of giant trees sourced from remote locations in Brazilian rainforests with the help of local communities and artisans. The Pequi Vinagreiro, an endangered tree most commonly found in the tropical state of Bahia, was a fitting subject and a source of inspiration. The roots of these rare trees have been molded and molded to reveal their dramatic compositions and form.
“We are lucky that artists like Weiwei have freedom of expression which, in turn, gives us alternative ways of seeing the world.”
Despite their actual tonnage, Weiwei’s sculptures carry symbolic weight for several reasons. The first being that trees occupy a significant place in both mythology and popular culture. From the Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, to the Luminous Tree of Souls in 2009 Avatar James Cameron’s film, trees are sites of spiritual connection.
Second, these sculptures evoke visions of human impact on nature. Weiwei’s rust-colored iron sculptures exist as a constant reminder of deforestation and climate change. The themes inherent in Weiwei’s “Roots” series present a dichotomy between rebirth and destruction. Between the quest for spiritual connection and the looming threat of industry and human intervention.
Shortly after Weiwei’s exposure, the nearby Amazon caught fire, pushing the rainforest towards a climate tipping point of no return. 3,358 fires have been detected at one point in the Brazilian Amazon, contributing to this historic fire and burning much of this precious natural resource.
The Amazon, often referred to as the lungs of the earth, also provides habitation and subsistence for indigenous populations. People depend on the Amazon rainforest, and its destruction by fire or by hand evokes key motifs in Weiwei’s work, such as both personal and shared displacement. Weiwei has been a prolific documentor of the plight of refugees and ‘Roots’ is simply a series of sculptures that are literal and metaphorical representations of the state of uprooting. Whether he speaks of his own experience, of the global refugee crisis or of the Amazonian indigenous populations; Weiwei’s “Roots” largely relate to the purging of people and resources under the sword of politics.
Despite the dark undertones, we are fortunate that artists like Weiwei have the freedom of expression which, in turn, provides us with alternative ways of seeing the world and engaging and critically reflecting on our society. and our culture. The “roots” run deep and will stand the test of time both as physical objects and in our collective consciousness.
Aaron Chapman is an artist and writer based in the Gold Coast, Australia, working in a range of mediums including photography, sculpture and public art. Chapman’s work is driven by themes of home and memory, and in particular childhood.