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A Tedious Task for a Monumental Cause

When disaster strikes, many artists find solace by creating works to honor the affected. For Ai Weiwei, the task of straightening steel rebar – a seemingly innocuous task – was elevated to a level of solemnity with the installation piece Straight, part of his most recent exhibition, According to What?

The piece contains 38 tons of rebar stacked neatly on top of one another from a specific source: a 2008 earthquake that struck the province of Sichuan.

Among the almost 70,000 casualties, thousands of children were killed or severely injured due to shoddily built schoolhouses. While there has been no official investigation, many in China believe that local builders cut corners to make extra cash while paying the provincial government to stay mum. The rebar used in Straight was taken directly from the wreckage of these schoolhouses, straightened and laid on the floor in neat rows running 20-feet wide and 58-feet long.

The stacking of the rebar is reminiscent of the piles of body bags seen during coverage of a natural disaster. Weiwei’s work is meant to demonstrate both the absurd greed of the Sichuan government and his commitment to self-responsibility in the face of disaster. He honors the victims by starting a dialogue about why these events were allowed to occur in the first place:

“The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence,” reads a quote from Weiwei on the wall of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. “We are spineless and cannot stand straight.” His simple, tedious task of straightening mangled rods calls us all to stand up against injustice, wherever we are.

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