Why we need luminaries

This third blog in our series on the luminary archetype explains its' important role in society. More specifically, a luminary’s role is to ‘make us aware’ and it is this goal that drives the work of many of today’s contemporary artists. One great example is the conceptual artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei whose statement of artistic purpose reinforces the important role that contemporary art can play. To quote the artist,

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” 

The artist’s power to convey important social commentary through his work is why the Chinese government confiscated Ai Wei Wei’s passport. In spite of those government imposed travel limitations (now lifted), the artist was still able to produce and show art that inspires the exchange of ideas. His work challenges viewers to think about and become more aware of social and political issues and in discovering more about the world also discover more about themselves.  

From February to June 2019, The Gardiner Museum in Toronto is exhibiting some of Ai Wei Wei’s work giving Toronto viewers a chance to experience this luminary’s ‘voice’ first hand. The exhibition, titled ‘Unbroken’, features ‘Colored Vases’, a seminal work acquired by the Seattle Art Museum. In that series, the artist sourced  Han dynasty earthenware vases and dipped them in bright hues of industrial paint. Covering these iconic forms from a defining period in Chinese history, says one critic “is equivalent to tossing away an entire inheritance of cultural meaning about China.” In the artist’s own words, “by covering the surfaces with new paint, what is underneath—like history itself—is no longer visible, but is still there.”  The vases represent centuries old craftsmanship and the industrial paint into which the urns are dipped serves as a powerful metaphor for the Chinese Cultural Revolution which also sought to destroy centuries of culture.

The Gardiner exhibit of select Ai Wei Wei works touches on such important issues as identity, free speech and human rights.  At a time in history when many of us bemoan the loss of truth and truth-telling, the call of the luminary to make us aware, to encourage us to explore boundaries , to face hard truths and in doing so to effect change is an even greater imperative.  It is this imperative that makes the work of luminaries such a Ai Wei Wei so essential in our lives.