This video is part of a collection of eight documentary shorts featuring medically-different children from across the UK. What really makes them (and their friends) different from most kids I know personally is how active and proactive they are, and how they eat yummy foods and play popular sports in different ways than normal!
Imagine if you unexpectedly came upon a Polar Bear, an Arctic Fox or a Snowy Owl casually moseying down your street. One might assume it’s also the day when the sun decides to remain under the horizon! But, the sun came out, and a female Snowy Owl, found herself nestled cosily on the ledge of The Washington Post building (fortuitously, a few floors down from the Capital Weather Gang’s workspace) in DC. But sadly, her fate was sealed! She was hit by a bus, and is now being cared for at the zoo.
Birds don’t usually draw the same brouhaha as animals! Hedwig may be more popular than Iorek, but in the human circles, Polar bears outclass Snowies all the time. No one made a fuss about Hedwig being played by male Snowy Owls in the movie because Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter can’t handle a heavy female. The popularity of animals over birds has nothing to do with their beauty, rareness, fearsomeness or intelligence. This is how we have come to size things up. But, this year the Snowies are attracting a deluge of onlookers, because of the unlikely places they are being sighted in.
Snowy Owls are one of very few avian species who have the audacity to wait out the winter season in the Arctic. It is usually the full grown adults wanting to breed that stick around in these unmerciful areas. The Snowies that choose to skip the breeding season, and the young ones who are less equipped to survive up there, fly southward where the weather is less extreme. Still, it nearly never happens that south-flying Snowies fly all the way to the Mid-Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, as we witnessed this year. One curious Snowy even made it all the way to Bermuda!
For years, scientists cerebrated over these on and off massive irruptions, and have not been able to make sense of them. In order to do a systematic study of Snowies, scientists need to understand how the owl’s live in their main domicile, as well as what motivates them to travel to places with extremely different ecologies, especially since they don’t migrate every year but sporadically, and for a limited amount of time. The hypothermic weather in the Arctic makes observing the owls there impracticable. Added to that, Snowies are extremely nomadic even in the Tundra. They not only follow the cyclical nature of lemmings, that are abundant one year and scare another, and move around a lot, but also go after bigger lemmings, and therefore an abundant population of those that breed less! So scientists have been limited to compiling information about the the owls that migrate to the south, where are more easily observable, and have been doing so since the early 19th century!
What they’ve found so far is that Snowies are both individualistic and collectivistic. Every owl follows a different trajectory of living, hunting and breeding, making it difficult to make broad generalizations about the species. At the same time, they also choose to travel in boids (loose groups), so that one’s fate is tied to another’s. It seems as if being a part of a boid to them is a choice and not a given, making boids fundamentally different from flocks.
The magic of the Snowy Owl is not in how they survive in a pitiless landscape, but how they transform themselves physically, and make the impossible possible. But, magicians never reveal their secrets, not even if you put them under a knife. If you saw them in half, they won’t tell you anything at all, and you won’t be able to put them back together, because you are not a magician. I consciously share this analogy to underscore a sad piece of information that I learnt from the Snowy Owl book. Up until the 1940s (and perhaps even later), biologists who wanted to understand the diet of Snowy Owls would cut them open to examine their stomachs’ contents. One particular scientist examined 205 stomachs, meaning 205 Snowy Owls were killed; 78 of them had empty stomachs, which means they were cheated out of life for nothing! This is in spite of the fact that one scientist in the 1930s made popular how owls’ regurgitated pellets could be used to understand their diets, so that owls don’t have to be autopsied to understand their diets! Snowy Owls are one of the most delicate bone digesters in the world. They preserve more bones of prey in their pellets than most other birds and make ‘little’ modification to the bones in their pellets.
Pellet analysis can reveal not only what an Owl ate, but also how many species and the size and weight of each! Moreover, Pellets of owls take as much as 10 years to decompose, because of the cold weather in their chosen habitats, so the information is in tact for a long time! In fact, the Owl too routinely tastes its chicks’ pellets to assess their wellbeing and hunger levels. For instance, the absence of bones in the chicks’ pellets would mean the chicks didn’t get enough food, so the digestion sucked every last calorie from their meal. Fortunately, today, scientists don’t cut open Snowy Owls! They capture, examine, band and release them!
This year Snowies migrated southward is unusually high numbers! This kind of irruption hasn’t been seen in may never happen again (even though a long-term look at irruption patterns point to more and more Snowies migrating over the years!). Over two dozen researchers, including the Pulitzer nominated author Scott Weidensaul have come together to work on Project Snowstorm to understand this anomaly, and other physical and behavioral characteristics of the owl! They are using new methods of tracking the birds, such as solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters, and also performing DNA and feather analyses, among other things.
The transmitters weigh 40 grams, which is the size of one lemming, and about 1.5-3% of the owl’s weight. This makes me uncomfortable, as owls determine what they eat and what they feed their chicks based on the weight of the hunted prey and their energy budget! The transmitters that are attached to their wings using a backpack harness should make flying inconvenient and cost them some energy on top of their usual expenditure.
That being said, scientists are already recording many differences in hunting strategies and invalidating many commonly held notions about their migratory motivations and their movements. One such myth is that the Snowies are here due to a shortage of lemmings in the Arctic. In fact, the abundance of lemmings in summer, led to a successful breeding season, and the current bumper crop of Snowies!
It has been believed for a few years now, that the mass irruption is the result of complex stochastic processes having to do with the availability of prey, winter snow thickness, but more importantly, the relationship between individual owls in their boids. Snowy Owls tend to travel to wintering grounds and breeding grounds in groups. It’s a loose structure where individuals keep safe distance from each other while also monitoring each others movements to get to places with rich food sources. Sometimes, this strategy works very well, and they hit a lemming bonanza, and pair up and start breeding. But, in some other years, they find themselves in an infertile area deficient in lemmings or alternate prey, but are too weak to move elsewhere and leads to mass deaths!
Snowies' most-preferred urban habitats are airports, because they offer vast open spaces with few trees and limited human access, and noise pollution. The noise factor gives the Snowies an advantage over other owls that use their ears and hunt in the dark close to dawn and dusk! Even though the Snowy Owls are diurnal, in the airports, they become very active when the sun begins to set. Here, they capture everything from tiny insects to large raptors, and even the Great Blue Heron and other Snowy Owls. While some airport owls are very healthy, others, especially the adults are exhausted and underweight.
Some years there are as many as fifty owls in one airport, which makes them all the more susceptible to being hit by planes. FAA recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and 11,000 strikes last year alone. Bird strikes have caused up to $700 million a year damage to civilian and military aircraft. At least five snowy owls were hit by planes in the US this winter season! A few States have “shoot-to-kill” orders, but most prefer to trap and relocate them.
But, in the early 1980s, research of 385 owls at Logan Airport revealed that the presence of owls in airports discourage flocking birds from roosting in the area. And attempting to disperse the owls only created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone.
I recently watched the Magic of the Snowy Owl, which documents the life of one Snowy Owl pair raising their young in a very bleak part of the Alaska North Slope, where food seems scarce and there is little relief from cold winds, rainstorms and freezing fogs. It’s a story of struggle and triumph with all the deflating and elevating elements of reality-melodrama. There is this sense that you are furtively observing The Addams Family of Snowy Owls. The narrator suggests that everything the family are doing is unusual and never been recorded before; like one kawaii scene of owlets daring to cross the river. It was the first time that this behavior was ever recorded or filmed.
In reality, a lot of what the movie thinks is unusual has in fact been observed many times before. The Snowy Owl book by Eugene Potapov and Richard Sale that I mention a few times in this post, provides both scientific and anecdotal evidence from all over the world to this effect. If you’ve enjoyed the movie, I recommend the book to contemplate the bird’s stunning and peculiar ways and facets.
In a different post, I share insights from the book, and clarify some of what the movie thinks is unusual. But mainly, I intend to share how the owl magically transforms itself physically and does amazing non-birdlike things; such as how it changes its spots, manipulates the sex-ratio of its offspring, and enjoys recreational sex, among other things!
January 2014 Filed in: Books | Films | TV | Art | Online | Adaptations | Graphic Storytelling | Google Doodles
Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.
When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.
At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.
Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.
Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!
What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.
And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!
Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!
When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.
Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.
January 2014 Filed in: Films
In describing this film, the word 'revulsive' comes to mind, but it's still important to watch it because something terrible is happening here.
There are two bands of exact likeness represented in this documentary, standing on opposite sides of the same chequerboard, intending to destroy each other, but ending up destroying themselves.
The Whites, moving first, are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organisers and their young pawns who are training in a militant women's camp; and the slightly disadvantaged Blacks counterplaying the Whites are the Miss India pageant organisers and their 'hopefuls' who have been chosen to train for the Hunger Games. The chequerboard they are all standing on is their messed up view of themselves and their life's purpose.
Every time a piece is moved, there is a tense pause before we ascertain if they've neutralized the play, or if they deliberately or inadvertently led themselves to their own slaughter at the hands of the opponent.
But this game is nothing like chess. All the differentiated pieces have lost their meaning. It is also unlike checkers, because there is no meaningful interaction among those of the same likeness. It's everyone for themselves out for the pruning; In any case, the hands playing the pieces are making up the rules as they go. And, when all the pieces will have fallen, a bras de fer will have ensued, and it won't matter who pins the arm to the chequerboard.
Luckily, there is time before that happens. We can get the hands off the pieces by crying foul.
October 2013 Filed in: Films
Manikarnika is a sacred ground in India that offers us the best chance to meet our maker at the end of our lives. There, we are laid southward, in "the direction of the dead," and set alight, till the fire consumes our body and liberates our soul. If this ritual is not done correctly, our spirit floats restlessly above the sacred earth, and haunts the living!
Among those ensuring out proper departure are children, who stoke our fire, collect our dropping limbs that detach from us and throw them back into the pyre. Some take a few hours to burn and some a whole day, depending on how much fat and sin we have accumulated. With bodies burning round-the-clock, a hundred at once, all lined up next to each other, the temperature rises to a 50° (122°). The children are covered in burnt pocks and wet ash from all the sweating, and reek of melting flesh and the fetor of a thousand bodies. It is unconscionable to touch them, or let their shadows fall on the living. If the priests don't volley abuses or whack these varmints, they pluck the shiny shrouds straight off our cold bodies from right under the priests' noses, and sell them to recyclers for scraps. They smoke marijuana to ward off the images of burning corpses that interfere with their minds when they work; some corpses escape into their dreams and scare them all night in spite of the dry high. They mock our departure, by imitating the priests and chanting nonsensical verses over unclaimed bodies that they find lying on the ghat. They candidly speak uncomfortable truths that expose our affectations. They know too much. But, it is when they dance uninhibitedly, that their spirits transcend to where our delicate souls cannot reach! Not even when we are tempered perfectly for departure. And so, we stay back to haunt them.
The documentary is available on Netflix to Watch Instantly.
September 2013 Filed in: Films
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) trilogy speaks of a multiverse with many earths parallel to each other. In some earths, people’s souls live inside their bodies. In others, they walk beside them as animals spirits called Daemons. Flowing through all the worlds and connecting people to their souls is Dust. Dust is the living essence of everything. It confers wisdom on all that it settles on. And while it is invisible to most, there are some who can see Dust and identify other sentient creatures with its help! On our earth, we call these people Birders.
One will find Birders in Central Park, a haven in the heart of the city, where two hundred and eighty species of birds visit every year. Some birds and their birders visit the park in every season, but most others visit it in Spring in Fall, when the leaves on trees are their vibrant best. When dawn breaks, millions of birds fly past Manhattan and a few thousand drop down from the sky for a morning snack. If you happen to walk in Central Park on such a Spring morning, you might find at least a hundred different bird species, and just as many birders perambulating in the park. Time has different meanings for all of them. Time is the changes to the foliage, it is the migration of birds, their travel and feeding schedules; it stand still for one, crawls for another, flutters for the third, and zips for the fourth...
The birders believe these birds are their souls. They say when they are not birding, they are missing out on something in an “almost bodily way”. It is as if they are part of the flock and need to be out there with them. It’s a deep impulse that presents itself as an addiction. “That sense of anxiousness, impatience, unease, that can only be stilled by getting over to the park, getting a binoculars and seeing the first warbler of the morning.” You could say they use the binoculars to look into their souls, and to look within themselves and feed their insides. Sometimes they use bird feeders, which seems to me the more direct approach.
Some birders seem to think the binoculars makes them defenseless, because they are looking at something that nobody else is looking at. They seem to think their souls are less corporeal to others; although, there is no evidence to support that.
They also seem to think the birds are more cooperative in Central Park than anywhere else. Lloyd Spitalnik says that one might find a yellow-throated warbler sixty to eighty feet away from a human at a breeding ground. But in Central Park, she might get within three of four feet of a birder. Conceivably (no pun-intended), breeding grounds are like restrooms, necessitating privacy. They are off limits even if a bird builds its nest at the Shakespeare Delacorte Theatre, on Juliet’s chest with Romeo looking down at it; or on the ledge of a fancy fifth avenue apartment building.
But, in Central Park, they seem manifestly metaphysically connected and can't seem to distance themselves from their humans for too much or too long. Birds and birders are awake and asleep at the same time (except from the birds of witches and shamans that remain awake even when their humans sleep and can fly five thousand miles in the pitch dark of the night away from their humans). Sometimes, the souls of birders change forms spontaneously. In the Spring, a birder’s daemon may be a Downy Woodpecker, in the Summer a Mountain Bluebird, in the Fall a Brambling, in the Winter a Western Grebe. In this documentary, they identify their daemons of the season for us.
“Bay-breasted Warbler. Boreal Owl, Gray Catbird. Hermit Thrush. Indigo Bunting. Wood Duck.”
“Worm-eating Warbler. Yellow-throated Warbler. Oven Bird. Northern Shoveler. Black-headed Gull. Blackpoll Warbler”
You see Anya Auerbach wistfully watching the birds and remembering her bird daemons. She speaks of how "alive, active, beautiful and varied" birds are... and it makes her feel protective of them, like she doesn’t want them scared. One wonders if she is projecting her own fears on the birds, and then one realizes that she and the birds are one and the same. They are her daemons, made of the same Dust! She dreamt just before one Spring-migration that every single migrant bird was perched on the same tree and it made her "so happy". Clearly, they are her past daemons paying her a visit, and assimilating themselves into a whole.
Central Park is an artificially created environment in 843-acres of land in the middle of an urban jungle. It has become real overtime by the sheer magic of Dust. Dust has settled on humans who manage the landscape, the birds and birders, the millions of people who visit on a daily basis, the transportation... Every little part of it, the greenery, the insects, the fungus, the soil has been put there by humans. The ponds and lakes and streams in them have water coming out of a hidden pipe under a rock, that can be turned off with the flick of a switch. But, it is not just Central Park; there is no place unmanaged by Dust. There is no land in the United States that is not managed to some degree or another. Even some of our most wild national parks and wildlife refuges have management underway, controlling the water levels in lakes and rivers, the vegetation of the place, the animal population… What is to say, this is not how it is meant to be? But then, there is extinction. Nearly a quarter of the species of birds have declined more than 50% in the last 40 years. Some dark matter is severing birders from their bird souls and wilfully killing joy. When it comes to birding, Joy is a very specific pursuit.
Chris Cooper speaks of the seven joys of birding.
- Experiencing the beauty of the birds: It is not narcissism when one appreciates the beauty of one’s own soul;
- Being in a natural setting: EO Wilson calls this Biophilia. We instinctively bond with nature and need it around us to feel more like ourselves.
- Puzzle-solving: Sometimes a birder’s daemon never shows itself fully. As it hides behind the leaves, birders piece it together to identify the bird that is their daemon;
- Collecting birds: As old daemons give way to new, birders collect them as memories and recollect them in their leisure time.
- Scientific discovery: In the Golden Compass, this is called Experimental Theology. When it comes to Dust, science converges with spirituality.
- Hunting without bloodshed: A birder often has to stalk his daemon to get to it.
- Unicorn effect: Sometimes birders become familiar with their bird daemons and develop a sense of intimacy with them, without ever seeing them. So they take on a mythological status and the birders wonder if they even exist. It’s what we call “soul-searching”. And then, one day, a daemon appears like a Unicorn came walking out of the forest.
- But, it won't be long before birds are imaginary and the Joy of pursuit is extinct. Respire by Mickey 3D reminds us such a world.
A special mention for Starr Saphir, the “matriarch” of birding, featured in this documentary. She had been leading bird walks in Central Park for over twenty years. You see her striding through the park with such love for the birds, and with such determination to meet as many of them as she could. She kept diaries (eighty in total) for many decades to note down the birds she saw everyday. One day, a Northern Goshawk landed on her apartment’s fire escape! She exclaimed “A bird appears in front of you in the most unlikely place or time!” and called it “the beauty where there wasn’t a moment before. It was so thrilling. It’s like magic.” Starr counted 2,582 different species of birds in her lifetime. Wherever she is, there's her favorite Cerulean Warbler by her side and a Northern Goshawk visiting to say hello. It must be magical place!
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.
As I was half way through watching Ai Weiwei's documentary, Tapi, who had just watched it the night before casually stated that it was the last day of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum; not expecting that he would have to vault out the door with me that very instant to go see it! I then came back and watched the second half of the documentary, which ended on a disheartening note, and some more videos about his art installations.
With Ai Weiwei's work, one can't separate his art from the polity or his life experiences. He's determined to make bold statements about the lack of transparency in the Chinese government using the most visible tools of outreach: Art Installations and Social Activism through blogs, Twitter, documentaries, videos and photographs. Even alone, each of these are audacious tools in a highly censored country, and he combines them so that they feed off of each other. This, while being under constant government surveillance, having his blogs shutdown, getting arrested multiple times (including a "disappearance"), and seeing his studio destroyed!
After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai Weiwei made a documentary to show how the government had covered up the deaths of over 5385 children who were buried alive when shoddily constructed public schools collapsed during the earthquake. He then rallied support on twitter for a "citizens' investigation" to compile a list of all the students who were killed. When the blog where he shared the list was shut down by the authorities, he turned it into art, and pasted the names of the student victims on the wall as a massive spreadsheet! One art installation at the exhibition was made out of steel rebar that Weiwei found in junkyards after the government tried to dispose of evidence!
When one looks at the art pieces, it is hard to see the commitment of hundreds of volunteers and the toil that went into pounding thousands of steel rebar to shape, or painting hundred million sunflower seeds, or sculpting thousands of porcelain river crabs, without seeing the accompanying videos showing them willingly laboring away; and then the abstractness transforms into a real, heavy feeling. Weiwei's art is equally about all these people coming together to say something in this ideational way, as it is about the message in the art itself! That regular people are even voicing their opinion is out of the ordinary.
The exhibits make sense only when you read the context, or watch the accompanying videos and see what informed them, and what happened before, during, and after the making of these pieces. It is about cause and effect, and wanting to change the effect into something more positive! Weiwei sees his art as a game of chess, where he makes his move and waits for the opponent to counter. Although, he says in China, the problem is that after every move, the government changes the rules of play, making it impossible to win.
Weiwei's passport was revoked by the Chinese government, so he couldn't attend his own exhibition in DC, but his spirit is indomitable and reverberates across the globe! His photos and videos cover every inch of the walls and floors in Hirshhorn, as I would imagine they do in several other museums all over the world!
When you see thousands of people watching his artwork in a different countries, or thousands of people posting nude photos of themselves online when he is charged for pornography, or thousands honoring the Sichuan earthquake victims in Munich, Germany, or thousands coming together for a River-Crab Party after the demolition of his studio in Shanghai, you see one man's single-mindedness transforming into many people's like-mindedness.