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1,001 Chairs: An Observance in Honor of Silenced Voices

11 Jul

There is a line in Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl that has always spoken to me, quite literally: “Ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time.” The persecution that Ginsberg faced from censorial authorities because of his supposedly “obscene” poem is nothing new to poets and artists, nor to any activists working to advance the cause of human freedom. Since, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” that “total animal soup of time” is an ongoing condition and demands solidarity, in many varied forms.

Finger (White House), 1999

One such artist (and activist through that medium) who has suffered at the hands of an authoritarian oppressor is Ai Weiwei, who, along with many other Chinese artists and dissidents, recently saw the inside of a Chinese prison cell. Weiwei’s high international profile meant that when he was detained on April 3rd, on charges of tax evasion, there was an outcry around the world for his release, with petitions, official statements and protests. Although Ai was released from prison on June 22nd, his movements have been severely limited, his studio was already razed in January and he has been blocked from Twitter and other forms of direct communication. That kind of free isn’t freedom.

In order to mark what would have been the 100th day of his detention and show solidarity with other artists who are and were detained (including Guo Gai, who is slated to be at the Soap Factory in August) the Walker Art Center is organizing a participatory event on Tuesday, July 12, titled “1,001 Chairs: An Observance in Honor of Silenced Voices”. Taking the lead from other similar protests in New York and London, “1,001 Chairs” is a populist recreation of Ai’s massive installation Fairytale, initially presented as part of a larger exhibition at Documenta 12 in 2007. The Walker is inviting people to bring chairs to the Open Field starting at 8am and hope to have 1,001 by 6pm, when Walker director Olga Viso will make some remarks. The Walker will remain open until 6pm (an hour later than usual) and offer free gallery admission all day. More details are available on the Facebook event.

Fairytale, 2007

This isn’t the first time this year the Walker has stepped into arts activism; in January they screened David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly in response to the controversy at the National Portrait Gallery. Nor are they the only institution in town to speak on Ai Weiwei, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (full disclosure, where cas is an employee) has placed Ai’s Marble Chair (2008) prominently in their Chinese collection. But “1,001 Chairs” is a step beyond, a step out to the public and speaking out into the open. As has been noted before at the intersection of art and politics, “Silence = Death“.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two himself about persecution for creativity, wrote in an op-ed for The Telegraph demanding Ai’s freedom, and those words bear reprinting. Rushdie wrote; “The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations…The poet Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived Franco’s tyrannical regime. We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight.” Because we are all in the total animal soup, and it is our time.

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