At the 2009 show show So Sorry, Ai Weiwei took on a familiar theme in his work, the 2008 earthquake which killed 80,000 people in Sichuan province. Ai contends that corrupt officials skimmed money from building projects, weakening the foundations of schools, which collapsed in the quake, killing thousands of kids. Chinese officials rejected that claim, and refused to acknowledge the death toll or release the names of the disaster's victims. With a team of volunteers -- and in defiance of a government threat of retribution against parents who release the names of dead children -- Ai researched and published online the names of more than 4,000 people who were killed.
For his show at Munich's Haus der Kunst, he made a moving, yet simple installation on the building's facade: Using 9,000 school backpacks, he spelled out in Chinese characters the words a grieving mother told him about her daughter who perished in the quake:
"She lived happily for seven years in this world"The work, Remembering, measured 100 meters by 10 meters.
While Ai plays the role of punk provocateur or trickster in works like his "Study in Perspective" series -- photos shot from his vantage point as he extends a middle finger to centers of power, from the White House to Tiananmen Square -- this piece shows Ai's role as closer to that of his father, Ai Qing, was a famed modern poet. Or as Holland Cotter writes this morning, that of "China's conscience."