The recent anniversary of the Russian massacre at the Mariupol Drama Theater was marked by a performance piece, entitled “One. Another One”, by the Chinese artist Lí Wei at the Tommy Simoens Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium.
Li Wei presented a facsimile of the Drama Theater, in the form of a giant cake, which he then went on to destroy. This was intended as a reminder of the devastation caused by a Russian air strike on March 16, 2022, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Ukrainians, mostly women and children.
Li Wei’s Representation of the Mariupol Theatre
Credit: Tommy Simoens Gallery, Denys Romanov
Lí Wei had accurately and dramatically replicated all the details of the theatre and the surrounding park as well as the inscription "Children", that those sheltering in the building had placed around it in a sadly vain attempt to warn the Russian attackers that it was occupied by innocents.
The audience for the performance was made up from both local Belgians and Ukrainians. The performance elicited mixed reactions from those who attended. The Ukrainians, who attended immediately recognized what was being portrayed while, in contrast, it did not have the same emotional impact on many of the non-Ukrainian attendees.
The artist said it was this latter reaction that he had intended to address, he wanted to evoke a change in the perceptions and understanding of non-Ukrainians and to provoke a dialog: "Cake at parties is like the news: first, the cake is in the spotlight, and then it quickly disappears without a trace, leaving only a taste behind," says Lí Wei.
Li Wei begins destruction of the theatre
Credit: Tommy Simoens Gallery, Denys Romanov
This is not the first time the artist has used a cake to highlight a tragedy. In 2010, Lí Wei used the medium to represent a fire that destroyed the 28-story Jing'an Teacher's Apartment building in Shanghai. The 40,000 square meters building, also known as the Jiaozhou, housed retired teachers. The building was being renovated and was covered in bamboo scaffolding and flammable materials which caught fire. The fire raged for five hours with flames and smoke visible from kilometers away. Very few people escaped the inferno and many thought the official identification of the numbers who had perished was unrealistically low. The Chinese government later deleted almost all information regarding the tragedy from the internet.
Lí Wei created this new work at the Today Art Museum in Beijing and on Christmas Eve, 2010, seven days after the event, guests were invited to an event to “sample” new cakes.
The center-piece was a cake in the shape of a typical Beijing high-rise building. It wasn’t until guests began to eat the cake that realized the true nature of the event. As each slice was cut from the base the building's interior was gradually exposed. It consisted of wire scaffolding inside which were small plastic human figurines. As the cake was consumed, the structure began to disintegrate, mimicking the disaster scene, and the audience fell silent.
As they stood in silence, some taking photographs, people interpreted the scene differently. Some said it was a fire that happened in Jing'an, others that it represented the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. After photos of the event appeared on social media, it provoked widespread discussion and demands for government accountability.
In 2021, Lí Wei unveiled "A Block of Cake". It was another cake in the shape of a typical Hong Kong house filled with doctors and patients and was intended to highlight concerns that the Chinese government was covering up the true extent of the COVID-2019 pandemic.
A “Block of Cake” – 2021
Lí Wei has been closely following the news about Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion. He has supported her Ukrainian friends at demonstrations, learned the Ukrainian anthem and the anthem of the Sich Riflemen; but he wanted to do more.
"I feel that a year after the start of the full-scale war, people started to talk less about what is happening in Ukraine and stopped being sensitive to the news. In China, the authorities hide the truth, while in the news is available Europe, people don’t really realize the full extent of the war. Countries are doing a lot, but not enough for Ukraine's victory," says Lí Wei.
The performance "One. Another One" is just the starting point. After the performance, the artist will continue to work in the gallery on portrait sculptures of Ukrainians living in Belgium because of the war. Lí Wei believes that, by showcasing the faces of those Ukrainians, it will help viewers to understand the gravity of the situation beyond just the news headlines by putting human faces to the tragedy.
The exhibition takes place at the Tommy Simoens Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium from April 13 to 16.
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