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.
Ai has a magpie sensibility. Operating in so many areas — architect, filmmaker, photographer, maker of objects — he can make art out of almost anything. He picks up ideas where he finds them: stockpiling old ironwood and prehistoric vases (which he embosses with a Coca-Cola logo, a Warholian gesture), channeling the skills of his collaborators, echoing the work of other artists. (Even the name of his show is a found object, appropriated from a painting by Jasper Johns.)
He is not the only Chinese artist to work in a wide range of media or to focus on social commentary. Indeed, he is an art-world aggregator, picking up on popular themes in attractive objects that fuse Eastern and Western elements. At one moment, he’s personal and artisanal: “Kippe” involves two parallel bars, evoking the Cultural Revolution playgrounds of his childhood, filled with a pile of neatly stacked wood, homage to the way his father piled up the family firewood. At another, he’s cool and modernist, as in the chandelier “Cube Light,” an enormous Donald Judd-like cube whose minimalism is belied by the bling of crystals strung across its chrome bars, looking like decor from a Communist-era banquet hall. The Hirshhorn has just acquired the piece for its permanent collection.
Ai has walked a fine line between making work that challenges the status quo and work that is sanctioned by it. Holland Cotter, in the New York Times, has suggested that Ai occupies a role that’s traditional in China, that of the scholar-artist who has a court jester’s freedom to comment unpunished on the events around him. The son of a famous poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled with his family to northern China during the Cultural Revolution, he seemed for years to be comfortably tolerated by the establishment. When the 2008 Olympics came to Beijing, for instance, he collaborated with the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, a centerpiece of the Games.
And some of his work about the 2008 Szechuan earthquake — a wall listing the names of the 5,000 children who died when their schools collapsed, or a sound piece with recordings of those names spoken aloud — adopts the vocabulary of officialdom, echoing the ceremonies and memorials we’ve seen to commemorate wars or the attacks of Sept. 11.
Fall from favor
But it’s this Szechuan work that ultimately led to his troubles, precisely because he was stepping in to fill a gap that the authorities had deliberately left open, and using their idiom to do it. Those rows of names on the wall look like entries in a government ledger, but they were gathered by private citizens — a project of Ai’s called “The Citizen Investigation” — after the government delayed releasing the information.
Still, his work — including the “Snake Ceiling,” made of student backpacks, that runs through the Hirshhorn exhibition rooms — is only part of Ai’s reaction to the earthquake. What really made him a hero to the younger generation in China was the way that he used his blog to call officialdom to account for the corruption and shoddy construction that led the schools to collapse.
The unfiltered rawness of the blog is little in evidence in the Hirshhorn show, which depicts Ai as an exquisite provocateur, his statements wrapped in a lovely, aestheticized veneer. Powerful emotion is processed into restraint, as in the biggest and most achingly poignant Szechuan piece: 40 tons of steel rebar from buildings destroyed in the earthquake, reclaimed and straightened and lying on the floor in a rectangle whose surface rises and falls like a topographical map, sundered by an ugly gash that looks less like a fault line than a flesh wound. The rusted beams look soft and warm, belying their sheer weight, and the sheer horror of the tragedy to which they bear witness.
Imposing though it is, this show affords a somewhat distanced view of an artist who appears to work on controlling his message. It mainly focuses on Ai’s mid-career; apart from the walls of photographs of his years in New York, most of the work dates from after 2004, when Ai was already a celebrity in China. And it mainly offers big, beautiful pieces, Duchampian in their ready-made aspects and Koonsian in their generous scale and gloss. Any ambivalence in this work, however, is entirely intentional; the pieces deliberately juxtapose the intimacy of the artisanal with the anonymity of mass production.
Also deliberate is the play between control — the sharp crisp edges of geometric shapes, like the “Tea Houses,” shaped entirely of pressed tea leaves — and the lack of it. In 2007, as part of his contribution to the mega-show “documenta (13),” Ai brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to the German city of Kassel; he also set up a large outdoor piece made of old temple doors, which he let lie after it collapsed in a rainstorm, pleased that nature had taken over. Both pieces had an open-endedness, a sense of the random at odds with the careful crafting of many of his objects.
Ai certainly embraces the way his pieces change over time. His 10-hour video of a main road running through Beijing, filmed at 50-yard intervals in 2004, is now no longer a mundane slice of life, but a record of the city’s pre-Olympics past.
Still, Ai has been wont to stand at the side of the stage, in the pose of omniscient narrator letting things unfold. His recent detentions and ongoing struggles with the government have turned him, unwillingly, into a protagonist.
You can sense him, in the current show, attempting to regain control of the message, and his own image: including, for instance, a scan of his brain after a police beating caused a cerebral hemorrhage. He also includes, at the end of the exhibit, two photographs from a mid-90s series called “Studies in Perspective,” in which he takes the measure of various landmarks — Tiananmen Square, the White House — by photographing them next to his raised middle finger. After all he has been through, though, the gesture seems less an expression of brash naughtiness than of impotent frustration.
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
Is on display at the Hirshhorn Museum through Feb. 24. It will continue on to Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami and Brooklyn.