Artist and activist Ai Weiwei has done a lot to commemorate the students who were killed in the Sichuan earthquake because their schools were poorly built. And while he’s built up a strange sort of cult on Twitter and he tends to turn people off with his vulgarity, he still has the ability to be quite poignant when he wants to be. His latest piece, an audio recording called “Missing”, is no exception.
Actually, the title is difficult to translate. The character 念 does mean missing, but it also means thinking of, reading, and commemorating. Ai undoubtedly picked this word intentionally because it conveys both the recording’s literal content (reading) and its significance.
“Missing”, posted to the web in the form of a three-and-a-half-hour-long MP3, is a recording of netizen volunteers reading the names of every single student who died in a school in the Sichuan earthquake ((Every student that the Citizen’s Investigation was able to track down and add to their list, anyway.)).
Ai posted the recording with the following message:
“Presenting to friends a work that shows the voice of the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake: “Missing”. It represents the memory of the lives that have been lost and the anger at the covering-up of the tofu-buildings ((i.e., schools that were built poorly or using low quality materials)). Respect life, refuse to forget.”
It’s a pretty powerful piece. To begin with, its sheer length is has an effect. The fact that one could fill three and a half hours with just the names of dead students is absolutely devastating in a way that looking at the numbers simply can’t be. And hearing a variety of people reading the names helps to drive home that these were sons and daughters, not statistics. The netizens reading the names serve as a sort of stand-in for the students’ families and friends. They remind us that the students who died left loved ones behind.
The greater power, perhaps, can be found in the fact that this is a collaborative, commemorative effort. These netizens, who may or may not have had any connection to the dead students, have shown by participating in this recording that they have not forgotten the students’ tragic deaths. It isn’t just their families, or even just activists like Ai Weiwei, that wish to commemorate these kids. It is, in a rather real sense, the people.
What do you think of Ai Weiwei’s latest piece?
Many thanks to Isaac Mao for tweeting about this and also clarifying for me who it was who made this recording.