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.
(Courtesy AW Asia. Photo: Cathy Carver) - Ai Weiwei, ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,’ 2010. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
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.