After years of political backlash from the Chinese government (including a still-unexplained, 81-day arrest) Ai Weiwei continues to make the most charged and divisive art in the contemporary scene. His aggressive critique of the Chinese government through art of every medium has led to a government-enforced quarantine in China. Nevertheless, WeiWei was able to orchestrate a recent project set in Alcatraz, the infamous prison in San Francisco. Called “TRACES” the work is a huge LEGO mural on the floor, depicting hundreds of images of human rights activists who have been imprisoned or persecuted from 33 different countries. WeiWei has proclaimed these faces the Heroes of Our Time, even while governments consider them enemies of peace. Yes, even Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested. Thirty times.
The image styles are certainly derived from digital imagery. The colors and pixelated type reflect a low-art, 1990s internet design. They feel like icons, a shrewd choice of symbolism. As a result, the diverse stories of leaders from different cultures and periods are united with a compellingly graphic look. Ai WeiWei again forces ourselves to ask: Can we call these imprisoned, tortured, and exiled political targets heroes? Do we dare?