February 10th-13th marked the 2021 inaugural Hawai’i Contemporary Art Summit. The multi-day event covered topics ranging from activism to cultural in-betweenness to food, and proved to be four days full of educational art programming with artists, thinkers, and curators from around Hawai’i and the world. As a precursor for next year’s Hawai’i Triennial 2022, the program offers the opportunity to connect with local and international audiences through global discourse.

Selected participants of the Hawai’i Contemporary Art Summit. Photo courtesy of https://hawaiicontemporary.org/

Kickstarting this year’s Hawai’i Contemporary Art Summit was a keynote conversation led by Ai Weiwei, a renowned global artist. Known for his ability to utilize a variety of mediums to examine society and its values in new ways his work symbolizes declarations of freedom. It’s well known that Weiwei uses his high visibility in the art world to take on public issues that he otherwise may not have the opportunity to raise in China. His keynote talk focused on his practice as an artist, both past and present, and discussed his work as it concerns itself with social activism.

Creating his first short film with his brother, Ai Weiwei used video cameras as a tool to record history as it occurs. Filming everything allows him to create records of information, which Ai Weiwei has done through producing most of his films himself. Ai Weiwei’s confrontational approach to artmaking shows the artist acting as not only the storyteller, but a truth-teller. This truth-telling concept is especially relevant in today’s world, where getting to the bottom of truth has become increasingly complicated. Western enlightenment traditionally proposes one singular truth. The 21st Century, and the power of social media, however, have shown that much of this truth has the potential to transform. Often, good-intentioned truths transpire into fake news. For instance, there are mass media, and unverified news outlets, which claim the information they share is genuine. We know from experience that artists can and do contest this truth.

Ai Weiwei. Photo courtesy of www.aiweiwei.com

Ai Weiwei’s keynote conversation goes deeper into the realm of social media. He mentions his introduction to social media in 2005, which quickly let him see it for the gift it was while providing him a new voice. After immediately gaining millions of followers, Ai Weiwei found getting responses right away to be exciting. It is interesting, then, that his view on social media changed so drastically after such a positive initial experience. Ai Weiwei eventually found that the use of social media brought danger to his life and could see how the concept of free information was damaging. With little to no hierarchy of information and such extreme political views, he began to understand how the increase of social media could be poisoning our society.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, Ai Weiwei mentions the time we are living through in his talk and its impact on people’s work. While no one has a clear understanding of how long this pandemic will last, he contemplates whether it will change our philosophy of modern society. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the artist shares that not much has changed in his life, as for most of his lifetime he has been living under restrictions. He shares that never before has he been so conscious about the current condition, and declares that any restrictions he faces only encourages him to respond and act more.

While Ai Weiwei is largely known as a documentary filmmaker, he treats his practice more holistically than this title might initially suggest. Acknowledging to viewers that he is a characteristically dissatisfied individual, he moves forward in his practice by throwing himself into awkward situations. In doing so, the artist is searching for a new kind of language to better understand himself and what he is doing in his practice, which, he admits, is extremely difficult. While it was not Ai Weiwei’s plan to create artwork, he has found it to be a suitable tool through which we can begin to question our value systems.

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