Photos of Ai Weiwei’s latest work, a response to China’s baby milk scandal


(Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has unveiled his newest piece in Hong Kong a work composed of 1,800 large tins of milk powder, arranged into a map of China. Each province is marked off by a different brand of milk.

The work is a response to China's 2008 baby milk scandal, in which Chinese-made milk, tainted by the industrial chemical melamine, killed at least six infants and sickened 300,000 others, in many cases causing kidney damage. State media and government officials at first played down the scandal, responding only after widespread Chinese outrage and an international response compelled them to act.

China has not fully recovered from the controversy, in which Hong Kong still plays a special role. The semi-autonomous city-state is more affluent and has access to higher-quality baby milk produced abroad, which has become highly sought by mainland Chinese parents worried about their children's health. Authorities have restricted the amount of baby formula that can be transferred from Hong Kong into the mainland's tightly controlled economy, leading many parents to smuggle it in illegally.

Ai's work often focuses on China, its changes and its struggles. Maps of the country are a common motif in his work, a way of commenting on the state of the nation. This piece, with Chinese provinces divided by their brand of baby milk but united by this product consumed by all families, suggests themes of both unity and division. Perhaps Ai is hinting at the class and political divisions (hard to miss that Taiwan is included) exposed in the scandal and its aftermath, in which some Chinese parents have access to foreign-made baby formula and others don't.

"A country like this can put a satellite into space, but it can't put a safe bottle teat into a child's mouth. I think it's extremely absurd," Ai told Reuters. "This is a most fundamental assurance of food, but people actually have to go to another region to obtain this kind of thing. I think it's a totally absurd phenomenon. ... I have heard of drug trafficking before, but when a country has milk-powder smuggling instead of drug smuggling, I think this is a devastating sign."

Here are some more photos of the work on display in Hong Kong:


(Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

(Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

(Philippe Lopez/AFP)

(Kin Cheung/AP)

(Kin Cheung/AP)

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Max Ehrenfreund · May 17, 2013