The Ai Weiwei survey at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC ended this past Sunday, and on that last day clusters of visitors gathered around each piece with camera phones out in documentation, especially at the end piece “Cube Light.” The highly photogenic glimmering box of glass crystals from his Chandelier series of large-scale installations is a conceptual monolith, and seems to unintentionally echo the flash of light from his own camera phone in his famous 2009 arrest photo displayed in a gallery below. It was that story of his own championing of documentation, especially through social media, that made the wandering camera phone mob seem like a component of the exhibition, a way for his art to fly out from the walls of the museum through digital waves while he himself is still unable to leave China.
According to What? was the first North American survey of the Chinese artist’s work, and seeing so much of it at once really gave an immersive experience in his power of using striking visuals to represent confrontational messages, and how these images are so reliant on the messages for meaning. Yet what is really at the center of the exhibition is Ai himself as a dissident and provocateur, with his sharp undercurrent of humor haunted by his own absence as the government of China continues to hold his passport, although his personal voice aside from some quotes on the wall is mostly left out despite his profuse writing on the internet on his blog and Twitter.
With his 2011 detention for 81 days and continued suppression by the Chinese government bringing his name to almost household recognition in the United States through the media attention, the exhibition came at an incredibly high profile time. The first installation visitors encountered (after the Zodiac heads in the courtyard and a circle of Forever bikes just inside the main entrance), was a wall covered in the gridded names of thousands of children killed in the collapse of their poorly built schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, each crowdsourced by Ai and read aloud in an over three-hour-long recording from a corner speaker. Up on the ceiling a snake of children’s backpacks wound through the circular hallway and left its head near the gallery entrance.
After the names, the first room suddenly immersed viewers in photographs of the construction of the iconic Bird’s Next of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a collaboration with architects Herzog & de Meuron for the grand celebration of China the same year of the earthquake, a project that Ai later stated he regretted participating in for its role in what he saw as the government’s use of the games for propaganda. The almost impossible-looking Bird’s Nest with its mess of angling lines was accompanied in the museum by two nail-less wood sculptures of icosahedrons made from Huali wood, an expensive material used in fine furniture in China, a perhaps not subtle, but effective contrast between the new and old in the country, as well as two forms of elitism in China, both traditional and contemporary.
Given the immense gallery spaces of the Hirshhorn to inhabit, each work was allowed to make its own statement, although that came with some heavy assistance from the wall text, which could sometimes be overly didactic. It’s possible to get the idea through brief glimpses of Ai’s work, like his sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern, that it is all about the beautiful objects, but it is really a practice that is more of an unabashedly political intervention.
Each piece is buoyed by a statement that is as much a part of the work as its physical presence, like the “He Xie” porcelain crabs. What makes them more than merely technically interesting as ceramic crustaceans is how the word “river crab,” a homophone for “harmonious” in Chinese, and has become an internet term for online censorship. The pile of crabs was a protest response to the November 2010 destruction of Ai’s new Shanghai studio, a response that also included an actual feast on 10,000 river crabs (although Ai on house arrest was unable to attend). Then there are the installations from piles of reclaimed wood, like “Kippe,” that get their strength from knowing that each piece of the sculptures was once part of a Qing Dynasty temple that was dismantled to make way for the new buildings of China. The most interesting of these temple pieces in DC was actually not in the Hirshhorn, but in another Smithsonian institution, the Sackler Gallery, where the wooden pieces were rebuilt into a sort of freeform memory of a temple, a more powerful statement than the clunkier wooden sculptures in According to What? that lost the delicate nature of the temple details in their bulk.
But it’s the 2008 earthquake again that brings him to his strongest intervention in the museum space, both in its material and its meaning. 38 tons of rebar ripple over a length of the gallery floor in “Straight,” metal bars taken from the earthquake debris and then reformed by Ai’s studio. All straightened out and right again, and placed in such an orderly way like an especially artistic arrangement at a construction site, it dares you to forget where it all came from, and that each bar failed in its support of a fallen building that was devastating to the people within.
While not the center of the exhibition, photographs from the 12 years Ai spent in New York living in the East Village, including visits to art luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and images of broiling events like the Tompkins Square Riot, as well as an upstairs slideshow of recent photos like portraits of Ai, his studio cats, and captures of work not shown in the exhibition, are a somewhat detached effort to perhaps show what’s missing, although the slideshows in particular feel like an afterthought. The “Cube Light” will be staying at the Hirshhorn, acquired as part of its permanent collection, and According to What? next travels to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Perez Art Museum in Miami, and finally the Brooklyn Museum in April 2014. While the exhibition is far from a complete profile of Ai Weiwei’s body of work or the role he’s had in criticizing China’s government, and the exhibition does show how essential it is that each piece be given its story and context for it to hold its own, it is a powerful manifestation of his bold visual confrontations of the country’s contemporary memory and politics.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? was at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, October 7, 2012–February 24, 2013.