There’s a map of China in the Sackler lobby. It won’t strike you as a map if you look at it. It’s a structure made of big, dark, wooden beams pinned together with smaller wooden posts, looping around a central area at improbable, disjointed angles, like something a giant child might build with a set of Tinkertoys.
Indeed, it feels like a playhouse. Like a trunk of old clothes in the attic, it is filled with a motley mix of castoff parts, no longer functional or even whole. The beams and supports come from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, chopped into loglike segments so that bits of carving gesture mutely, cut off before they can finish. Pieces of defunct furniture are built into the structure: a table whose legs don’t quite reach the ground, two stools linked at the seats like conjoined twins, sitting about in the area of Taiwan.
The title of this object is “Fragments.” It dates from 2005, and it’s by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
You’ve read the headlines: Ai, nearly 55, the dissident artist/architect/writer/ curator/activist/social critic who was the artistic adviser to Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, became a cause celebre when the Chinese government detained him without explanation for 81 days last year on a range of charges, including tax evasion. He is still forbidden to leave the country. Last week, he moved back into the news when a Chinese court unexpectedly agreed to hear his lawsuit against the government, accusing it of breaking the law by levying a $2.4 million fine for tax evasion on the company he founded that produces much of his work.
Now see the work. Two current installations in Washington, “Fragments,” at the Sackler, and “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at the Hirshhorn, are the advance guard of a major retrospective titled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” and scheduled to open at the Hirshhorn in October.
Ai has fused a lot of perennially popular art-world tropes into a single conceptual life-as-art juggernaut. He’s a figurehead of the once-burgeoning Chinese art market, an artist who keeps the line between life and work fluid; an auteur who creates his work in collaboration with other people, like the traditional craftsmen who used post-and-beam construction to assemble “Fragments” without a nail or screw, just a thwack of hammer sending wooden peg through perfectly aligned cut holes. He’s also destroyed artifacts, like the Han Dynasty urn he broke in a triptych of 1995 photos. He’s worked as an architect; sent 1,001 people from China to roam the streets of Kassel, Germany, in one of the works he displayed in the German megashow documenta XII in 2007; made films documenting the physical transformation of Beijing; protested corruption and human-rights violations in China on his blog, which was a part of his art, as well. Yet he’s said he wants his works to be judged on their merits as objects rather than ideas.
So: the objects. “Fragments” — here in its first American showing — is defined by its material: Ai collected the wood and thought about how best to use it. It’s an embracing physical presence, dominated by the warm darkness of the old wood. But the wood, hacked and muted, embodies a complex narrative about culture and value: Once-holy temples become meaningless and are discarded to make room for progress, then are reclaimed as ruins and reassembled into an object that ends up being even more venerated.
There is, in short, something worth saving about the fragments of a culture — the wood’s age and former function give it significance — even though cultural value is ephemeral (or the temples would not have been destroyed). It’s a strong message, but not a bleak one: The structure, tracing China’s outline, is nostalgic, comforting, embracing. Does it represent an older China? A friendly China? A China that castrates its own cultural heritage, leaving impotent fragments as testimony? The piece feels benevolent, yet it is built of inarticulate fragments, stunted in their gestures, giving it a sense of folkloric primitivism that nicely evokes a touristic nostalgia while deliberately failing to recapture any of the wood’s former elegance.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” billed as Ai’s first major public sculpture, has a whole different relationship to its material (bronze). For one thing, there’s more than one copy of it: a smaller, gilded set of the heads is on display in San Diego, and there are further sets on exhibit elsewhere. For another, it embodies an absence, not a presence; these heads are not original, but replicas. They echo a set of water-spewing heads, representing the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, designed by an 18th-century Italian Jesuit for the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was then looted and destroyed — at the behest of the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, son of the man who took the so-called Elgin Marbles from the Athens Acropolis — during the Second Opium War in 1860. Only seven of the original heads now exist; two were put up at auction at Christie’s in 2009, leading to a vehement protest in China about a piece of cultural heritage that the country believes should be returned.
So while the 12 bronze heads guarding the Hirshhorn’s central fountain are massive physical objects, their physicality is almost a rebuff — a rebuff only strengthened by how the Hirshhorn has positioned them: facing out from the fountain so that you have to walk the full perimeter of the courtyard to see them all and a look across the fountain yields only the backs of heads.
These zodiac heads are deeply ambivalent objects. They are not pretty or appealing. They are not exactly faithful recreations of the originals: They look a little slicker, more polished, slightly Disneyfied. They include lots of naturalistic detail — the veins under the animals’ skins, the hairs of their pelts — without being realistic; the snake is stylized to the point of resembling a Transformer. Some of them are heraldic (the resplendent dragon), some rather noble (the aristocratic ram), some fatuous (the horse with its tousled, Little-Lord-Fauntleroy hair and anxious eyes like a desperate housewife), some repugnant (the pig with its broad, almost prehensile nose tip, its huge ears, its impossible proliferation of little square teeth). Standing on odd stalks rising from the ground, like something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, cut off from connection to their original context, they are blatantly reduced to mere objects, heads without bodies, fountainheads without water. They are an elaborate memorial to works that were created by non-Chinese artists for an oppressive ruling class that through an odd alchemy have somehow come to represent a cornerstone of “Chinese heritage.” The China they represent is not a nice China.
Ai’s objects may be important, but the creative act is distanced from its physical realization: He comes up with the idea and lets it play itself out. In this, he is squarely in the Western tradition of conceptual artists: Think Sol LeWitt or Jeff Koons, whose work the slick, cartoony “Zodiac Heads” evoke. A difference is that Ai, as part of addressing Chinese issues, folds Chinese artisanship into the process. Part of the resonance of “Fragments” derives from its traditional craftsmanship: This, too, has become a residual fragment of the cultural past that needs to be saved, reexamined or recycled.
What Ai offers is conceptual art for a large audience, taking on big, inflated targets (the rise of capitalism in China; the shoddy construction that led to the crumbling of poorly built schools in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake) in big, inflated works (like “Cube Light,” an enormous piece the Hirshhorn acquired in April, or the documenta XIIi piece, “Fairytale,” which cost more than $4 million): giant play, indeed. His prolific outpouring of art is offhandedly thoughtful, deliberately playful, happy to pose questions and let others think through to the answers — or not.
In China, the fact that the questions are being asked, and the pot is being stirred, has an urgency not much protest art has in this country — something underlined by Ai’s detention. It’s still uncertain whether Ai will be able to attend the opening of the Hirshhorn show Oct. 7, but he is working on a new piece for it with another kind of cultural artifact: steel beams from schools destroyed in the Szechuan earthquake: another angle on a playhouse no one ever wanted to enter.
is on view through April 7 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
is on view through Feb. 24 at the Hirshhorn Museum.
will open Oct. 7 and extend through Feb. 23.