New Sculpture by Ai Weiwei (with Hidden Meaning) Unveiled in Downtown Vancouver

Photo from Vancouver Biennale

Photo from Vancouver Biennale

One of the world’s best known political activists has unveiled a brand new outdoor sculpture in downtown Vancouver.

The provocatively named F Grass by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei consists of hundreds of blades of metal grass arranged in the shape of the letter F.  The 13.5-square-metre sculpture, which stands just a few centimetres high, is located near the Coal Harbour waterfront at Harbour Green Park.

Visually, the sculpture looks arresting.  While the metallic blades of grass aren’t sharp, they look a lot like the traffic spikes that police use to puncture tires during car chases. But there’s a deeper symbolic meaning to the piece, as well.

If you look at the blades of grass from the right angle, they form a giant, stylized letter F. Understanding the significance of this requires a bit of background on Chinese censorship and acts of defiance.  The Mandarin word for grass sounds a lot like the “F-word” in English. To critique the government and avoid censors, activists like Ai Weiwei have taken to using images and references to grass.  This amounts to “sending a big ‘f— you’ to government censors in China,” writes Vancouver Sun columnist Kevin Griffin.

Photo from Vancouver Biennale

Photo from Vancouver Biennale

In other words, all that metallic grass in Coal Harbour is one big, eloquent F-bomb hurled by Ai Weiwei at the Chinese government.

And he has good reason to be upset. Born in 1957, Ai is the son of a revered poet of the Communist party.  But shifting political tides saw the family exiled to a remote labour camp, where Ai lived out much of his childhood.  Later, the budding artist used new blogging platforms and social media to deliver scathing social commentary on inept and corrupt government practices, as well as to share his thoughts on art and architecture.

His enormously popular blog was shut down by officials in 2009 after he published the names of all 5,385 children killed in the 2009 earthquake in Sichuan – deaths blamed in large part on shoddy construction practices. Since that time he has been under heavy surveillance and – despite his high international profile – is unable to travel to other countries.

Photo credit: Hafenbar | Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Hafenbar | Wikimedia Commons

As an artist, Ai explores sculpture, woodworking, video and installation art.  As part of one exhibit, he famously installed millions of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds in the Tate London’s Turbine Hall.  As an architect, he has been commissioned for conceptual projects around the world, including – confusingly – Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, an event that he harshly criticized.

Ai Weiwei’s sculpture F Grass is part of the latest instalment of the Vancouver Biennale, an every-other-year exhibition that brings monumental outdoor sculptures to various locations across Metro Vancouver.  F Grass will be displayed for the next year in Coal Harbour Park, at the foot of Bute Street.

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