It’s no secret that Florence is one of the art capitals of the world. The bright star of the renaissance era, Florence offered its ancient streets as blank canvases for countless artists to transform. The heavy influence of art and architecture still lingers in the air of this beautiful city, often whispering stories of the greats – the masters whose footprints many have strived to follow.
But the wind here is changing. And I arrived just in time to catch a heavy gust and breathe it in.
Around the corner of Piazza Signoria on my second night in Florence a striking ad jumped out at me: plastered over a hot pink background popped the familiar eyes of China’s most famous living artist . Struggling to believe what stood before me, I read the description. “Ai Weiwei Libero, Palazzo Strozzi.”
An activist, a rebel, a dissenter, Ai Weiwei is not an artist who “belongs” in Florence. Weiwei, a Beijing born artist, uses his art as a platform for social change. He speaks for those who can’t speak for themselves. He lets nothing slide. He is alert, awake, and alive.
His art is unusual. He plays with unconventional materials. He breaks barriers. He sparks controversy.
His work is in stark contrast to the typical Florentine art: he is no Michelangelo creating art for political or religious elites. He does not create art that belongs. He creates art that deviates.
Similar to the Chinese government that detained him for eighty days, the Medici would have him exiled in a heartbeat.
Labeled one of the most influential artists of our time, Weiwei has a unique global platform on which he can speak out against injustice and oppression. His methods, though sometimes jarring or even provocative, never fail to attract attention.
How fitting it is, then, to see a complete retrospective of a rebel artist featured in the palace of the Strozzi family, a great rival to the Medici.
How fitting to have a great force of government opposition featured in Florence’s own symbol of government opposition.
In addition to a collection of Weiwei’s older pieces, he created a new series for his exhibition in Florence: portraits, made entirely of LEGO bricks of Dante, Galileo, Savonarola, and Filippo Strozzi – all famous political dissenters.
With these portraits he reminds us that dissent is not a dirty word. For society to progress, society must question. A government that silences is a government that stalls.
Renaissance and contemporary art are vastly different. There is nothing quite so shocking as seeing the hot pink and bright yellow Weiwei advertisements next to statues and sculptures aging over 100 years. But once immersing oneself in the exhibition, once weaving in and out of the porcelain figures, the bright wallpaper, the LEGO portraits, the paint-coated vases, and the moving photographs, it suddenly became very hard to imagine Weiwei’s art featured in any other setting.
Creativity has always found a home in Florence. Though contemporary art often finds itself in far more modern cities, Florence will continue to remain sympathetic to its methods and messages.
In this beautiful city of creative freedom and self-expression, Ai Weiwei’s famous words are truer than ever: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”