Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ai Weiwei Exhibition at Hirshhorn

I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in DC to see the new exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work, which was a revelation for me as I usually have a skeptical distance from conceptual art.  Ai’s work alludes to the distant artistic past, embraces Duchamp, nods to Jasper Johns, and mimes Minimalism, yet is also firmly set in the present. The work is beautiful, moving even, but without letting us forget the compromised world we live in.

What attracts me in particular is his engagement with the transformation of contemporary China. His ready-made sculpture comprising old bicycles, temple wood and reclaimed furniture references the ransacking of the past in the making of the present. He sprays Coca-Cola logos on Neolithic vases and dips Han dynasty vases in bright modern colors. There are also his more urban-inspired works.  Provisional Landscapes is a series of photos of the liminal spaces between demolition and construction that marks the Chinese urban scene.  There are the many photographs documenting the building of the Bird’s Nest 2008 Olympic stadium. Chang’an Boulevard is a 10-hour video--I did not see it all--shot every 50 meters along the 45-kilometer route. It provides a visual east-west transect from Beijing’s outer suburbs through the central city and out the other side. The Second Ring is a one-hour video of traffic along the second-ring motorway that encircles Beijing. Both videos provide the urban geographer in me with a visual handle on urban transformation.

There are the spatial works that quote maps and boundaries. Map of China is a five-foot high solid map of China made from recycled ironwood. Fragments is an installation of antique furniture and pillars from temples that he shapes to make a giant map of China.

There are the political works. Brain Inflation is two blown-up images of his brain scan taken after his beating from security police. He responds to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, not only in photographs and through the names of the victims printed on an entire wall text but also in two other compelling pieces. A traditional Chinese serpent, which on closer inspection is made up of hundreds of school kids’ backpacks, coils and winds its way around the exhibition space’s ceilings; it is a requiem for the many children killed when their shoddily built school buildings collapsed. Wenchuan Steel Rebar is a deceptively Minimalist floor piece consisting of 40 tons of rebar steel reclaimed from the wreckages of the earthquake.  A large ‘crack’ in its steel surface as it undulates across the floor recalls a quake’s rolls and fractures.

Ai Weiwei’s work is political but transcends glib agitprop.  It was a memorable experience to see how he wrestles with making aesthetic sense of the transforming world around him.

Map of China