Ai Weiwei Skypes with the AGO
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Ai Weiwei Skypes with the AGO

Famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made a virtual appearance at this month's First Thursdays event at the AGO.

Ai Weiwei and Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques.

When visiting an Ai Weiwei exhibit, it’s appropriate to document your experience on social media. Known as a prolific tweeter (and a prolific blogger, before his site was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009), Ai is one of the world’s most vocal proponents of the internet as a tool for social good. So while there were a lot of smartphones out at last night’s First Thursdays party at the AGO—which coincided with the ongoing restrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”—the constant photo-taking seemed less about showing off and more an extension of the digital culture that Ai celebrates.

It’s thanks to this culture that Ai was able to take part in Thursday’s event. Since his passport was confiscated by the Chinese government in 2011, Ai has been unable to travel outside his home country. But last night he visited Toronto on Skype, using the video-chat application to do an interview with Art Gallery of Ontario Director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum.

Art Gallery of Ontario Director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum.

Before beginning the chat, Teitelbaum warned that he might ask some unexpected questions. In the end, however, the discussion didn’t veer far from the broader themes surrounding Ai and his work: his commitment to transparency, his complicated relationship with China, the importance of technology to his art and activism, and the evolution of his influences. While this is well-trod territory for followers of Ai’s career, it remains important territory, and just being in the artist’s presence—albeit virtually—made for a riveting hour of discussion. Despite all the Instagramming going on in the gallery space, the AGO’s Baillie Court was completely silent for the duration of his talk.

Although Ai’s situation is a frustrating one, he still brought humour to the conversation, poking fun at both himself and the Chinese government’s relentless surveillance of his house and activity. Ai’s work and mission deal with big ideas, but he addressed topics like government transparency and freedom of speech with a matter-of-fact tone that cut straight to the urgency of the issues.

Ai Weiwei, on Skype.

The only audience question came from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who asked whether Ai’s work would have been different if he’d grown up and lived under different circumstances. (The answer: yes.) Clarkson wasn’t the only Canadian political figure engaged in the event: Ai conducted the chat from the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and was accompanied on screen by the Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques. Additional participants in the evening’s proceedings included punk band Fucked Up, who performed a set following Ai’s talk, and artist-turned-barber-for-one-night Sean Martindale, who was doling out solidarity buzz cuts.

Yesterday’s event demonstrated an interesting dynamic in Ai’s work and persona: while he’s an avid digital activist who connects with the world online, his art is distinctively tactile and textured. Materials used in the show include repurposed bicycles and stools, porcelain crabs, and dried tealeaves modeled into miniature houses that weigh over a tonne. Many of his pieces reconfigure common objects, offering new perspectives on everyday things. This emphasis on the tangible in his work speaks to one of the most important realities of online activism: clicks don’t mean much if they don’t also impact the physical world.