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Art Gallery of Ontario invites community to help honour over 5,000 child victims five years after deadly Sichuan earthquake

AGO seeks volunteers to read the names of children commemorated in artist/activist Ai Weiwei’s works

TORONTO — The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) will honour the youngest victims of the devastating 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province by holding a live tribute on the opening weekend of its summer exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What? The Gallery invites community members who can read Chinese and speak any Chinese dialect to participate in a live version of Ai Weiwei’s voice recording Remembrance (2010), which names the thousands of schoolchildren who perished in the disaster on May 12, 2008.

Beginning today, the Gallery is collecting names of volunteers who wish to participate in the reading of the names to be held at the AGO on Aug. 18, 2013. Registration is now open at Directed by Gein Wong, artistic director of Toronto performing arts company Eventual Ashes, this community initiative will run in conjunction with Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which opens the day prior on Aug. 17, 2013, and runs to Oct. 27, 2013.

A haunting reminder of that immense loss of life in 2008, Ai’s artworks Remembrance (2010) and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen Investigation (2008-11) originally brought together thousands of community volunteers to gather and record an archive of the names of the Sichuan schoolchildren who were killed when their government-constructed schools collapsed. The AGO’s reading of the names will take place in the exhibition space, offering a poignant remembrance of each child’s name, birth year, gender and school.

Ai, who is under constant surveillance and has been unable to leave China since the government confiscated his passport in 2011, is supportive of the AGO’s effort. The earthquake marked a watershed moment for Ai’s artistic practice and activism. In the wake of the disaster he began to raise serious questions—via online platforms and through his artwork—about the transparency of government, issues of accountability and freedom of expression in China. When government officials refused to release the number of deaths, or acknowledge any accountability, Ai launched a “citizens’ investigation” to gather the children’s names, ensuring that neither the victims nor the devastation would be forgotten.

Ai wrote, “Can these facts be altered? The hearts stopped beating, their limbs decayed, and their shouts disappeared with their breath, can these be returned? Wave upon wave of mighty propaganda from the national state apparatus cannot erase the persistent memories of the survivors….People’s hearts will call out each of your names, the name that belonged to you will be remembered. When it is called out again, you will rise from the dead and be contented spirits.”

“Ai Weiwei’s ongoing investigation into China’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake in the face of ongoing detention and surveillance by the government has put him at the centre of a global conversation about freedom of expression,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. “Ai’s art and activism have resonated far beyond the art world, and the AGO is committed to engaging the community in this crucial discussion.”

The earthquake’s victims, a reoccurring motif in Ai’s works, are also commemorated with Snake Ceiling (2009), a large-scale sculpture in the form of a giant snake and formed from commonly used student backpacks in various sizes. Snake Ceiling is currently on view in the AGO’s Margaret & Jim Fleck Gallery, offering an advance introduction to the exhibition.

Organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Ai Weiwei: According to What? arrives at the AGO for its only Canadian appearance following a successful run at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Featuring large-scale sculptures, photography, installations, video and audio work, Ai’s art draws on both western consumerism and traditional Chinese symbols and objects. With humour and wit alongside solemn expression, the exhibition chronicles the artist’s work from the mid-1990s to the present and makes visible the often fragile links that bind individuals to history, art and each other.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? includes:

Straight (2008-12), which contains 38 tons of reinforced steel rebar recovered from the rubble of the collapsed Sichuan buildings, arranged to depict China’s tectonic and moral fissures and arranged specifically for the exhibition;

Grapes (2010), showcasing a number of wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) that artisans have rejoined into a spiky cluster with seats in, legs out;

Surveillance Camera (2010), a piece of technology carefully replicated in marble, recreating the device that the Chinese government uses to keep an eye on the artist in his home; and

He Xie (2010), an installation of more than 3,000 porcelain river crabs. The term “he xie” refers to the word “harmonious,” which is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s slogan and is now internet slang for official online censorship.

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) has been the recipient of numerous grants, honours and awards, most recently in 2012 the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation; the International Center of Photography Cornell Capa Award; an honourary fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects; an Honourary Degree from Pratt Institute; and a foreign membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. Other honours over the past five years include a Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Lifetime Achievement; an International Architecture Award for Tsai Residence; Das Glas der Vernunft (The Prism of Reason), Kassel Citizen Award; The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage; the Skowhegan Medal for Multidisciplinary Art; Wallpaper Design Award Best New Private House for Tsai Residence; and a Wall Street Journal Innovators Award (Art). Ai Weiwei is consistently included in top artist and human rights lists, including GQ Men of the Year in 2009 (Germany); the Art Review Power 100, rank 43 in 2009; the Art Review Power 100, rank 13 in 2010; the Art Review Power 100, rank one in 2011; Foreign Policy Top Global Thinkers of 2011, rank 18; and runner up in Time’s Person of the Year in 2011. Ai Weiwei helped establish Beijing East Village in 1993, co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse in 1997 and founded the architecture studio FAKE Design in 2003. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy, Parsons School of Design and Art Students League of New York; upon returning to China he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? was organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and curated by the Museum's chief curator, Mami Kataoka.

Generously supported by Emmanuelle Gattuso & Allan Slaight; Hal Jackman Foundation; Donner Canadian Foundation; Francis & Eleanor Shen.

Advance installation of Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling is generously supported by Partners in Art.

With assistance from Canada Council for the Arts.

With a collection of more than 80,000 works of art, the Art Gallery of Ontario is among the most distinguished art museums in North America. From the vast body of Group of Seven and signature Canadian works to the African art gallery, from the cutting-edge contemporary art to Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece The Massacre of The Innocents, the AGO offers an incredible art experience with each visit. In 2002 Ken Thomson’s generous gift of 2,000 remarkable works of Canadian and European art inspired Transformation AGO, an innovative architectural expansion by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry that in 2008 resulted in one of the most critically acclaimed architectural achievements in North America. Highlights include Galleria Italia, a gleaming showcase of wood and glass running the length of an entire city block, and the often-photographed spiral staircase, beckoning visitors to explore. The AGO has an active membership program offering great value, and the AGO’s Weston Family Learning Centre offers engaging art and creative programs for children, families, youth and adults. Visit to find out more about upcoming special exhibitions, to learn about eating and shopping at the AGO, to register for programs and to buy tickets or memberships.
March 16, 2013 – June 16, 2013: Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art

Aug. 17, 2013 – Oct. 27, 2013: Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Nov. 30, 2013 – March 2, 2014: The Great Upheaval: Modern Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection

The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO members, donors and private-sector partners.


For press inquiries about the name-reading initiative or Ai Weiwei: According to What?, please contact:

Andrea-Jo Wilson; News Officer, AGO Communications
416-979-6660, ext. 403,

Laura Banks; News Officer, AGO Communications
416-979-6660, ext. 504,

Caitlin Coull; Manager, Communications
416-979-6660, ext. 364,

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