Places We Express Ourselves

Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn, Washington, DC

February 11, 2013, Washington, DC: On a trip through the airport this fall, I picked up the magazine Foreign Policy. It’s a publication I rarely read, but this was the Cities Issue, jam packed with articles about the world’s urban landscapes. Statistics about the global population and a piece on “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the New Shanghai” were fascinating, but what resonated most was an interview with Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei. The interview, titled “Twitter is My City”, was striking due to its emphasis on the power of place as it relates to freedom, choice, expression and ownership.

“A home can be poor, and we’ll still love it because it belongs to us,” Weiwei told reporter Jonathan Landreth. “It can show our feeling, our attachment, our memory, and our hope for the future.”

But Weiwei doesn’t feel at home in his hometown of Beijing: “Beijing’s greatest problem is that it never belongs to its people,” he says. Instead, he asserts, “Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to.”

I thought about that article again Saturday while visiting Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?” exhibit now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall. I thought about the fact that I had walked down to the museum and strolled through the exhibit while the artist himself has not: Weiwei is not free to travel and is currently barred from leaving China. I thought about the careful thought we give to ensuring that our homes between four walls express and reflect who we are, but we give less thought to the fact that we are free to express ourselves everyday on our city streets and in our public spaces. The place we live belongs to us. It is full of opinions and full of options. But what I sometimes take for granted is that the choice is ours: On any given day, we can experience our city and our hometown in any way we so desire.

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