Beauty in the Face of Anything

The photographs in this essay document two of the most indelible examples of healthy problem solving you may ever encounter

Color photo of bicycle with flowers in front basked outside Beijing studio of Ai Weiwei

The photographs in this essay document two of the most indelible examples of healthy problem solving you may ever encounter.  In this sense they are a mirror.  We can use them to reflect on what’s possible for us, and the institutions we’re a part of, when it comes to meeting the test of effective communication: that which honors the dignity of everyone.  

Each image captures the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The bicycle is located outside the entry to Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing.  Since November 30, 2013, every morning at 9, Ai begins his workday by placing a fresh bouquet of flowers in the bicycle’s basket.  He then takes a photograph of the new bouquet and uploads it to the internet.  The act is a statement of protest in response to the Chinese government’s confiscation of his passport some three years ago.  

Imagine using this image and the story of its creation to teach grade school children (much less their elders) problem solving.  

In a world where most protests are rooted in fear and expressed in anger, this one is rooted in possibility and expressed with respect, even for those who are the target of the protest.  While there is a legitimate place for a variety of protest tactics, few have more “stickiness,” more lasting transformative power, more appeal to a wide audience, than those which elicit a certain smile of the heart––simplicity, beauty, playfulness conveying a commitment to integrity regardless of the consequences.  In Ai Weiwei’s case, as a little Googling will reveal, those consequences have been considerable.  

That you are reading these words may be the most immediate demonstration of the image’s impact.  The world community is that much more aware of Ai’s life and work, especially his well-earned view that the Chinese government acts in ways painfully contrary to the fundamental requirements of a healthy society.  And from that awareness, healthy action by all of us is ever more possible in the face of whatever our own life brings us.

In 2011, two years before the first bicycle bouquet appeared, Art Review magazine named Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world.  Reasons included the story of the image below, part of Ai’s response to his government’s contribution to the devastation caused by an earthquake which destroyed a school, killing more than 5000 students.  The children died, it was discovered by a team of citizen volunteers, Ai Weiwei among them, because their school building’s construction had been poorly engineered, the result of government corruption.  And when the government wouldn’t identify and make public the names of the dead students, the volunteers took it upon themselves to do so by interviewing every family they could in the affected area.  

Color photo of Remembrance at Haus der Kunst museum in Munich

Among the ways Ai Weiwei commemorated the 5212 children the team was able to identify, and protested his government’s negligence, was this 100 meter long mural installed on the outside wall of the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich––a statement constructed entirely from 9000 children’s book bags.  To Ai, book bags of the dead children were the most telling ingredient in the rubble of the destroyed school.  The Chinese characters are a quote of one dead girl’s mother: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

While Ai Weiwei’s stature is a big reason these photographs (and indeed the images of anything he creates) zip around the globe, I feel there’s a much more important reason some of us will remember them for the rest of our lives.  The significance of Ai Weiwei’s work is much larger than its power of protest, or its ranking as art.  

The deeper value is how it can serve any of us to become ever more aware of what it means to meet the criteria of effective communication, no matter what we are responding to.  I’m speaking of communication that is respectful of the heart and mind of all who encounter it, communication that is arresting, emotionally powerful, meaningful and memorable––and therefore can serve the human family basically forever.  

That almost all communication we encounter, or create, falls short of this ideal suggests just how difficult it is to embrace and express the depthless beauty that resides in every situation, regardless of how mundane, or painful.


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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth