Ai Weiwei, one of the most controversial Chinese artists in the contemporary art world, has become a symbol of public intellectual and social conscious while also jousting with his government for decades.
After traveling to four cities in the past two years, the artist’s retrospective “According to What?” has finally landed in the Brooklyn Museum, offering a precious chance for his fans to get intimate with the artist, who is about 7,000 miles away at home in Beijing as the Chinese government has confiscated his passport for reasons that still remain unknown.
The experience of the exhibition starts even before you get a ticket to the fourth and fifth floors where the main exhibition is located. In the entrance of the museum, there six dark iron boxes sit, solemn and quietly, like, well, six tombs. Looking down at each box from above, you will discover a diorama exposing a vivid scene from Weiwei’s 81-day detainment in a Chinese jail, where he served time for tax evasion charges back in 2011. In the recreated mini-prison, you get a peek into his life as a prisoner eating, bathing and sleeping with guards hovering over him.
The exhibition includes more than 40 pieces that span 20-plus years of Weiwei’s career as an artist, activist, photographer and designer. Most pieces are not unfamiliar to his fans, like “Straight” for example. Both the idea and materials of the room-size installation are from Sichuan, China, earthquake back in 2008. Nevertheless, regardless how many times you’ve already seen it in art magazines or photos, when the real piece is spreading out in the showroom in front of you, you will still get blown away by the visual impact and the message beyond it. One-hundred fifty tons of rusty steel rebar from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses following the tragedy are carefully and laboriously strengthened, piled on the ground to form the shape of continuous waves. The massive work is a reminder of the impact of the earthquake. Through the piece, Weiwei expresses his concern over society’s ability to start afresh “almost as if nothing had happened.”
Struggling to grasp the relationship between the individual and the whole in China in today’s society is frequently seen in Weiwei’s works. “Crab” is visually striking and thought provoking. “He Xie,” the Chinese word for crab, means “harmony,” which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan “The realization of a harmonious society” — and what Chinese government attempts to maintain. By now it is also a code word for state censorship. “Crab” metaphorically represents the restriction of individual expression and freedom of speech in Chinese society.
Besides the massive installations, it is also important to not ignore those smaller, seemly more-peaceful pieces such as a series of black and white photographs taken by Weiwei in the 1980s and ’90s when he called New York home. Like most of his works, this series of photos is also full of humor. He captured important events such as the Tompkins Square Park riots in 1988, scenes of political activism and social problems such as homelessness.
In many other photos, you also see some familiar faces, like composer Tan Dun and poet Allen Ginsberg. The experimental, funny and raw photos unveil the path and struggles of Weiwei’s trying to become an unconventional artist. He moved to New York in 1983, when China was in the vital transition of reform and opening up and still in the shadow of post cultural revolution. Weiwei’s exposure to the west culture and his root back to China had made him a lionhearted artist who devoted himself to universal topics of culture, history, politics and tradition. In another two photographs, he gives the middle finger to the White House and Tiananmen Square, capturing his push for free expression and his relentless questioning of authority.
Obviously, not everyone is a big fan of Weiwei, even those who come to the exhibition. I overheard a conversation between two girls whispering to each other: “I think Ai is a little overrated as an artist,” one said. Their voices were so low as if they were afraid of being heard by his supporters in the exhibition room. This kind of comment is nothing new to me. There are tons of people out there suggesting he is more of an opportunist than an artist, creating great and original works, trying to use politics as a tool for his fame. I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of opinion since one is supposed to possess freedom of expression, which is what Weiwei has been shouting out loud and fighting for in the past decades.
It is inaccurate to say that Weiwei’s fame rests primarily on his activist. Pulling his works out of the social and historical context of China to try to understand and appreciate makes little sense. The message beyond the physical pieces is more profound, which is a cry from the bottom of the artist’s heart for justice and freedom — while still maintaining a strong sense of humor.
Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?” will be on display in the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro wing of the Brooklyn Museum through Aug. 10.
Eva Xie is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.