In 2015, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei clashed with the Danish toymaking firm Lego after the company refused to fulfill a bulk order of plastic bricks for an installation piece he was planning. Ai went public with his anger, framing as a free-speech issue the company’s reluctance to have its product used in what was likely to be a politically charged art piece. A few months later, Lego backed down and changed its “no politics” policy on large orders. One of the world’s most popular artists, backed by a legion of his online followers, had stared down the maker of one of the world’s most popular toys, and the corporation blinked first.
It doesn’t seem likely that the countries indicted by Ai’s Lego-brick installation of political portraits at the Hirshhorn, called “Trace,” will be so easily dissuaded from repression. The project, a collection of 176 portraits of dissidents, political prisoners and activists, was first seen in 2014 as part of a huge exhibition the artist created on Alcatraz Island in California. The material presented in Washington includes an updated text detailing the lives of the featured activists, but the portraits — which lie flat on the floor and appear to be pixelated because of the rectangular brick forms — are the same, and even the holes left open for support columns in the Alcatraz show are still there, as blank spaces.
Ai is a blunt artist. There aren’t many twists or turns or conceptual divagations from the political message to the final form of the work. The portraits were made for him, by volunteers, and were shipped to the Hirshhorn in roughly 12-inch-square pieces and reassembled. The portraits appear to be based on photographs found on the Internet; plug a few names into a search engine, and more often than not the image that comes up first is the image that appears in this exhibition. In a few cases, there is a bit of decorative background added to the design, but many are simply straightforward Legoized versions of a basic snapshot with a colorful background and the name running along one side.
There are two ways to visit the show. First, breeze through it. If you approach the exhibition as essentially an art show, the whole thing can be surveyed in about 20 minutes or less. It fills the entirety of one floor of the Hirshhorn, with the walls featuring an Ai-designed wallpaper that makes decorative and ironic use of security cameras and handcuffs and other appurtenances of the security state that the artist is anatomizing in his recent work (including a large installation at the Armory in New York City, open until August). If, however, you take time to engage with the individual portraits, and make use of the digital screens that explain the what, where and why of the various human rights activists, then the show can take hours.
The point of the show, if one reads a large black-and-white photograph of the artist that greets visitors at the entrance, in which Ai is seen holding his own eyes wide open, is to get you “woke” to injustice. But there will be some debate among visitors about what qualifies as injustice, especially in the first room, where Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are among the activists represented, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Other figures have been significantly tarnished since the days when they were courageously in opposition to repressive authority. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and fought for democracy in Burma, has more recently demonstrated distressing complacence and moral fecklessness in the face of persecution of her country’s Muslim-minority Rohingya population.
So this show is a “talker.” That’s what Ai does. But is it enough? If the kinds of conversations sparked by large-scale Lego installation pieces in cosmopolitan world capitals often led to reform and political action, it would absolutely be enough. But the energies released by Ai’s art often seem to circulate in a troubling, insular sort of way. There is nothing in this piece that touches directly on political violence or cruelty, on the real deprivations many of these people have suffered, and the frightful dangers they continue to face. All of that is dealt with in the short, cursory texts that accompany the show. The portraits themselves — two-dimensional in more ways than one — are merely the pretext for a set of crowd reactions, and in the end the primary residue of all of this is probably a whole lot of self-satisfaction. Ai isn’t just preaching to the choir members, he is rubbing their shoulders and whispering affirmation in their ears: We care about injustice.
Ai does care about injustice, and as a former prisoner and political free thinker in China he has been the victim of an authoritarian state. One is thankful that he is using his art-world power and moral gravitas to focus on meaningful issues. But he needs to make better art, more thoughtful art, art that isn’t consumed and exhausted in a single glance.
If for no other reason, he needs to make better art because many people who will pass through the Hirshhorn in the next few months will take their cues from what he has done, and assume that art is supposed to be merely blunt and provocative. And that does an injustice to art itself, which in an ideal world would cajole viewers into more torments of thinking and more genuine introspection. The paradox of Ai’s art is that he is more interested in telling us what we should think about than he is in demonstrating how we should think about it.
Critics love to hate art-world celebrities, especially figures like Ai who have risen so high that they are essentially untouched by the vicissitudes of occasional failure. So it’s worth performing a simple test. If this project — a room full of large Lego portraits based on snapshots of dissidents culled from the Internet — had been proposed by a first-year MFA student, would it be received with enthusiasm? More likely there would be questions: Why Legos, an expensive, first-world toy made by a giant corporation? And why do the images need to be large? What is intended by placing them on the floor, which could be seen as a sign of disrespect? Why suggest digitization, and how does that relate to repression? How much research will you put into the accompanying material? What are you, as an artist, adding to the process from concept to realization?
Very likely the verdict would come back: This isn’t a bad idea, and it is well-intentioned. But you need to do more work before this is ready for an audience. Which is exactly what Ai should have done, too.
Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn opens Wednesday at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and runs through Jan. 1. hirshhorn.si.edu