Face masks are a new staple in life. Gone are the days when they were simply a tool used by people in the medical field. Instead, they have cropped up in the most rural of places, become mandatory in many public spaces, and created a mobile safety blanket of sorts for those going out for their shopping. They’ve also become the inspiration for and central focus of a new series by renowned artist Ai Weiwei.
The mask series are blue, non-surgical masks with a silkscreen print featuring a smattering of Ai’s iconic sunflower seeds, – harking back to the 100 million unique ceramic sunflower seeds the artist used in his Tate Turbine Hall installation – mythical animals, and perhaps most poignantly, a defiant middle finger. The facemasks are being sold through eBay and all of the earnings are to go to major humanitarian groups working overtime during the pandemic including Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Ai’s mask series came to fruition out of frustration the artist felt after seeing news story after news story concerning face masks, like how the US has been accused of taking masks from Germany in a report of “modern piracy.” “I wanted to do something,” Ai told The New York Times in a phone interview. “I didn’t want to just be sitting there and waiting for the time to pass.” Ai and his son were making woodblock prints at their home in Cambridge when the artist printed a middle finger on a mask. He posted it to his Instagram account and people immediately began asking where or if they could buy one.
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From there, Ai began creating imagery for the masks, which are being screen printed in his Berlin studio. In total, Ai has started with a series of 10,000 masks, which he has brought to life by working collaboratively with Alexandra Munroe, curator of the project and curator for the Guggenheim in New York. Masks by AI can be bought individually for $50 (£40) each, in a thematic series of four for $300, or in a collection of 20 for $1,500. All sales are online only and they are available now until June 27th. So far, the most popular individual mask has been the middle finger eidition, which feels like an accurate barometer for the current climate of the pandemic.
“It’s also an artwork you can touch and hold. In this time of lockdown and cancellations, we’re making something,” said Munroe of the masks, which Ai believes will most likely be collected as opposed to worn. While it is up to the buyers to use the masks as they wish, they’ll forever be a relic of the odd and uncertain times we are living through today.