What do Ai Weiwei and sustainable development have in common?

“What is sustainable development?” That is the question of the century and the overarching (burdensome) theme of my masters program. Many policymakers suggest that “developed” countries should help fund sustainable development initiatives in “developing countries.” Others have suggested allowing developing countries to pollute enough so that they can reach a certain level of survival (some researchers say $20 per day is sufficient). However, many academics are now questioning whether Western countries that have flourished through polluting industries have the right to limit or control developing countries’ growth. One classmate last week aptly asked, “What is the goal of development? Are Western lifestyles the standard? Should they be?” These questions lingered in my mind the entire week. Is the goal of development for everyone to have four luxury cars or just to be able to buy three meals a day? At the same time, there is little discussion on un-developing or lowering the standards of certain “developed” country lifestyles to improve the climate. Should my family be allowed to buy as many Hummers as we want as long as we fill our house with LED lightbulbs, while most Beijingers are only allowed to buy one car and drive it a few times a week?

Before we can “develop” anything, we should decide what our end goal is. What kind of future do we want to create? Do we need to change our values to create this future? These are crucial questions for sustainable development in China and countries around the world. So when I went to the Ai Weiwei exhibit (that I’ve been waiting to see my entire life!!) at Royal Academy of Arts in London, I realized that the (in)famous artist’s work also addresses these questions.

Ai Weiwei uses—or I should say reuses—a variety of unique materials ranging from Qing dynasty wooden furniture to rubble (very sustainable of him!). He turns remains from demolished Qing dynasty temples into a twisted structure. He even uses traditional Qing techniques to construct these pieces, and many of the porcelain items (like the river crabs in the photos below) are handcrafted. In this way, he pays homage to China’s history and culture but also asks, “Where do we go from here and how? How do we reconcile the tension between old and new in a rapidly developing country?

In Straight, Ai Weiwei uses salvaged materials from schools destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children were crushed by cheaply made buildings. A list of their names (as many as they could find) fills the walls surrounding the sculpture. In this piece he asks, “What kind of society do we live in where human life is valued less than turning a profit and ignoring corrupt officials?” Shattering Han Vase also questions our values. Three photographs show the artist dropping a vase from the Han dynasty. Citizens have criticized his destruction of the ancient artifact and cultural relic. His response: Aren’t we doing this already anyway? Having seen the demolition of hundred-year-old hutongs in Beijing, as well as the destruction of fragile land for profit, I have to agree with him. How do we place values–cultural and monetary–on artifacts, human lives, or nature? Do we need to change how we distribute these values?

In my classes we have also discussed how humans have survived on certain values that place responsibility on individuals within a limited time and space. (My actions only affect me/my family for a generation or, at most, two.) But, as scholars such as Dale Jamieson have argued, solving climate change problems requires new values on a shared existence across space and time. (My actions affect more people than those close to me and last longer than I or my grandchildren will be alive.) While Straight illustrates the consequences of officials’ values, climate change illustrates the consequences of our generation’s (and previous generations’) values. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate.

Fragments, like a few of Ai Weiwei’s pieces, has hidden images of China’s geographic shape, and the last work in the exhibit is a crystal-studded chandelier made of bicycles. To me, these pieces represent movement. We use bikes to physically travel to a location, and we use maps to navigate paths through the earth. So the question is, where is China going, and how will it get there? These questions are extremely important for the country’s (and the world’s!) sustainable development process.

IMG_9058 Straight, ironically is not that straight. It mimics the torn landscape post-earthquake and also the lines created by seismographs.

IMG_9075 (1) Shattering Han Vase

IMG_9076 Fragments, made from pieces of destroyed Qing temple. From an aerial view it is in the shape of China.

IMG_9103 (1)Bicycle Chandelier

IMG_9062He Xie or river crabs. Also a pun on the commonly used term for censorship, “harmonization.”

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