Ai Weiwei has unveiled his latest sculpture in Hong Kong – a map of China made up of 1,815 cans of milk formula. The installation displays different international brands of formula as the different Chinese provinces and shows the artist’s response to the tainted baby milk scandal of 2008.
In 2008, six babies died and 300,000 fell ill after consuming tainted formula that was made in Chinese plants and contained the chemical melamine. Since that time, Chinese parents have been wary of purchasing domestic formula and have traveled abroad, as far as the UK but most often to Hong Kong to purchase foreign brands. The run on milk has led to empty shelves on stores for Hong Kong citizens and resulted in the Hong Kong government placing a limit on how much milk formula can be taken out of the city-state, leading many Chinese citizens to smuggling cans out.
Ai Weiwei, who often criticizes his homeland in his work, wanted to demonstrate the difference in availability of formula – richer citizens can afford to go abroad to access milk for their child whilst poor parents cannot – whilst also highlighting the unity of a country struggling for an essential product. When the controversy first came to light, the Chinese government downplayed its severity until international pressure and outraged citizens forced them otherwise. Commenting on his work, Ai told Reuters:
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. 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.
Click through to see the installation on display Sheung Wan Civic Centre: