Last Tuesday, authorities closed his company, the entity through which he makes most of his work. They might as well have timed the move to draw even more attention to Sunday’s opening of “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Hirshhorn Museum, the artist’s first major retrospective in North America.
“According to What?” is billed as a chance, finally, to get past the “dissident” label and learn what the work is about. But it’s not easy to separate Ai’s life from his art. The show, which originated at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009, amalgamates a huge range of material, from monumental sculptures to personal snapshots, into what amounts to a grand performance, with biography and current events and social commentary woven into a mercurial, gleaming, accessible mix.
Why is Ai such a big name? Because he takes big concepts and makes them easy to grasp, often through objects that are aesthetically appealing.
I defy you to look at “Bowls of Pearls” from 2006 — a half-ton of cultivated freshwater pearls — and not want to sink your hands into the abundance of glistening, fleshy, opalescent pinkness — while wondering whether the pearls are less valuable because there are so many, or more valuable because they are part of a work of art, or fake because they are cultivated, or wasted by being mounded up in two huge porcelain bowls. The questions are real; the work still feels like a guilty pleasure.
Abundance is an Ai theme. One piece, not in this show, involved 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds strewn across the floor of London’s Tate Modern. Other themes involve authenticity and tradition and the ways in which we — or the authorities — destroy history to preserve it. Ai salvages wood for his sculptures from Qing Dynasty temples, torn down to make room for new buildings. Sometimes he himself is the destroyer: In three well-known photographs, he smashes a Han Dynasty vase to the ground.
It used to be said at Time Inc. that the trick to selling a magazine is to put on the cover something everyone is already talking about. Ai is a master of that kind of relevance. He established himself as a major figure in China by opening a window on Western traditions that the country was hungry for, returning after 12 years in New York City armed with concepts like Dada, pop art, minimalism and conceptual art (all amalgamated in his work).
And one reason he’s lionized in the West is that he represents a window on China that’s appealing to Westerners. His work offers a blend of social criticism and traditional artisanal techniques. Photographs show the barren no-man’s lands where the authorities, who own it all, have torn down whole neighborhoods to make room for building sites. A circle of conjoined and mutilated bicycles, called “Forever,” hearkens back to the time when most of Beijing’s population still rode around on two wheels and the Forever brand of bike was the most coveted. A three-dimensional “Map of China” is made of ironwood pieces seamlessly joined without a single nail.