Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why did Mike Brenner shave his head for Ai Weiwei?

And what does art have to do with democracy?

And who is Ai Weiwei anyway?

If you’re a regular follower of Arts Without Borders, chances are you know who Mike Brenner is. He keeps a fairly high profile in art circles around Milwaukee. He’s known as the owner of the now-closed Hotcakes Gallery, a founder of Milwaukee Artists Resource Network, and disputatious commentator regarding the Bronze Fonz, among other things. When he was asked today – as he stood at the lip of the Calatrava bridge with his newly shaved head – if he is an artist he humbly demurred, admitting only to being an “arts agitator.” 

Mike showed up promptly at 10:00 am, when the Milwaukee Art Museum opens, literally and figuratively, and began shaving the center line of his head as the wings of the Calatrava building began to rise. He did this in solidarity with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is being “detained” by the authorities in China. Charges have not been made public, but Ai Weiwei has long been an activist and outspoken critic of the Chinese government. 

Chances are also good that you have heard of Ai Weiwei before, but if not, you can learn much more about him readily. He is easily the most famous living Chinese artist. There is even a page about him on Wikipedia. One of his more famous works of art was an installation of 9,000 children’s backpacks in Munich, Germany to commemorate the children killed in the collapse of a school during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. Controversy erupted when the collapse was attributed to faulty construction and oversight. Read more about this piece (above) in the Christian Science Monitor.

Steve Somers, another artist who came to bear witness
Before Mike shaved his head he was met by two burly men in dark suits bearing the insignia of the Milwaukee Art Museum – giving new meaning to “art muscle” (who knew?) They told him politely but firmly that he would have to stay off the bridge. Not only did he stay off the bridge, but he comported himself throughout with a quiet dignity that perfectly suited the solemnity of the event.
To learn more about why Mike chose the Milwaukee Art Museum I’ll direct you to today’s post in Art City, which covers it much more accurately and thoroughly than I have room for. The short answer is, the museum is about to open an important exhibit of Chinese art.
As for democracy, Mike broached the subject with humility, claiming no great status or power for himself, but citing the example of Ai Weiwei, who has put his own life on the line. Speaking into the microphones of interviewers from Channel 12 TV and Wisconsin Public Radio as well as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike said that his gesture was a small thing but hopes that it will stimulate a dialogue about ethics and the role of the arts and museums in the still contentious democracy movement in China.
China is far from alone in this struggle. As I drove home I heard news from the BBC about Hamza el-Khatib, a 13 year old boy who had been tortured and killed in Syria and whose name has subsequently become a rallying cry for a resurgent democratic opposition to the Assad regime.
Recent events right here in Wisconsin that need no reminders have led many to reconsider the importance of democracy. Today Mike Brenner decided to shave his head to look like Ai Weiwei. It is a small thing, perhaps. But I was happy to bear witness and I too hope a broader dialogue will ensue. Thanks Mike!

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